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When coupon shoppers behave badly

Q: "When I was at the store today, boxes of breakfast bars were on sale for $1.50. Many of the boxes had peel-off $1 coupons. I was excited about picking these up for just 50 cents a box. As I was putting some in my cart a shopper came up and started peeling bunches of the $1 coupons off the packages and putting them in her purse. She wasn't even buying the bars. Can you believe this?"

Q: "While shopping today, I took two $1 coupons for freezer bags off of a tear pad on a store display. While I was standing there, another customer came up to the display and took all four entire pads of coupons off the display and pocketed them. Of course, this was the end of coupons for the other patrons. Could you please address this issue in one of your columns?"

A: These aren't the first letters I've received on the topic of in-store coupon etiquette, or the lack of it. I'm a big fan of in-store coupons. They're typically high-value and many times they also will line up with a great sale, too, like the breakfast bars the reader mentioned in the first letter.

Unfortunately, as the adage goes, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch. I have seen similar instances of shoppers' bad coupon etiquette over the years. Behavior like this is frustrating to witness.

Peel-off coupons affixed to the face of a product -- affectionately called "peelies" by couponers -- are intended for the purchaser to peel and use immediately to purchase the product on that shopping trip. They are considered part of the packaging of the product, although some shoppers seem to view them as free for the taking.

I've always thought of peelies this way: If the coupon were printed on the actual packaging of the product, would you tear the coupon off the box itself, leaving the damaged product on the shelf? In my book, taking "peelie" coupons without buying the product they are attached to is theft. While it's likely not a prosecutable theft (most coupons' stated value is a mere 1/100th of a cent) it's incredibly frustrating for shoppers to see the peel-off residue on the face of a product, knowing that there was probably a good coupon attached to it at one time.

As for the tear-pad coupons, they're displayed in the store because the manufacturer wants people to use those coupons and buy their product. Clearly, manufacturers don't intend for one person to take an entire 100-coupon pad.

I, too, have witnessed unscrupulous shoppers taking whole pads off the display and pocketing them. I wonder what these shoppers do with all the coupons. Even for shoppers accustomed to stockpiling items for future use, having 100 of the same product would be a lot to store.

Coupon dispensers continue to be popular with both shoppers and manufacturers. Most of them are electronic and limit a shopper to taking a limited quantity of coupons from the dispenser in a certain amount of time. These dispensers can be quite sophisticated. Many even have an electric eye that prevents the dispenser from resetting until that shopper leaves the aisle in the store. This technology helps ensure that the coupons inside will be distributed over a longer period of time.

I've always been an advocate of picking up both tear-pad coupons and coupons from in-store dispensers whenever I see coupons for products I like and use. It's a great way to get multiples of the same coupon. And, if the coupons don't line up with a current sale and the expiration date is favorable, I will take several in anticipation of the next good sale.

But I limit the quantities of coupons I take to the amount that I will reasonably buy and store when the next sale comes around. If all shoppers did the same, many more people could enjoy similar savings.

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.