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Coupon Hold 'Em: What's with the limits?

Q: "Almost all of my coupons say limit one coupon per purchase. I tried to get my store to use one coupon for each item purchased but they insist I can only use one coupon for each shopping trip. How can I convince them otherwise?"

A: There are two variations of the limit wording that you'll see on coupons: limit one per purchase and limit one per transaction. A lot of confusion arises from this wording. Here's the simplest way to understand it.

Each item we buy is a purchase.

Each group of items that we take to the lane with us and buy together is one transaction.

Limit one coupon per purchase means a limit of one coupon per item purchased. In fact, many coupons use the newer, explicit "per item purchased" phrase to make the meaning clearer both for the shopper and the retailer. Either way it's written, a coupon limit per purchase means that you may use one manufacturer coupon on each item that you are buying.

What your store is telling you is incorrect, and this sort of confrontation is certainly a couponer's worst nightmare. You are free to contact any product manufacturer and ask them about this -- I have. When I spoke with one manufacturer, the representative actually laughed and said, "Nobody would use our coupons if they could only use one per shopping trip!"

And this is true. Manufacturers want us to use their coupons. They want us to try their new products and continue to buy their existing products -- and coupons are a great incentive to ensure that we do. Manufacturers do intend that shoppers may use one manufacturer coupon per item purchased.

If I have 25 items on the belt, I can use one manufacturer coupon for each item up there. I am purchasing all of them. I cannot imagine having to make a separate trip through the lane for every item I buy. I sometimes use 20 or more coupons in a single trip. Store registers are also set up to accept one manufacturer coupon for each item purchased -- again, in conjunction with the way manufacturers intend for their coupons to be used.

Only coupons that state "One per transaction" are, in fact, intended to be used on one item, one time, per shopping trip. If I happened to have multiples of this type of coupon I would have to use them over several transactions. However, that wording on a manufacturer coupon is very rare. In more than a year I've only seen it once on a manufacturer coupon, a high-value, $5 printable coupon.

Additionally, that one-per-transaction phrase is more often found on a store coupon, such as a "$5 off your next order of $50 or more." It's the store's intent to limit you to using one per shopping trip. They don't want you accumulating several of these and then using them in the same transaction.

So, how should you resolve this? I suggest visiting your store's web site or calling your store's corporate office to obtain a copy of the store's current coupon policy. Unfortunately, sometimes staff may misinterpret the policy of the store, or at times not be aware of it at all. Incredibly, I've heard from many cashiers that they get no training on their store's coupon policy. This problem is more common than you might suspect.

Once you obtain a copy of the current coupon policy, you'll find all of the store's rules for handling coupons spelled out in detail. You'll know if it is, indeed, the store's policy to only accept one coupon per shopping trip -- which to me seems highly unlikely.

If you discover that this store will only allow you to use one coupon per shopping transaction, you have a couple of options. You can either break up all of your purchases into separate transactions (a pain, of course, for both us and the store) or you can research the coupon policies of other grocery stores in your area. Chances are, a competitor will have a coupon policy more to your liking.

My favorite area stores are the ones that are coupon-friendly. As shoppers, we're free to take our business anywhere we like. And if this store sees a drop-off in traffic, perhaps it will consider revising such a restrictive policy.

Next week, we'll hear from another reader with coupon policy issues of a different kind.

Jill Cataldo, a coupon-workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.super-couponing.com. E-mail your couponing coups and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.