When instant savings lead to instant theft - Jill Cataldo

Last week we discussed why it's wrong to use a coupon on a different item than a manufacturer intended. This week, we hear from a manufacturer's representative who witnesses a different kind of coupon-usage problem.

Q: "I am a retail merchandising representative. One of my duties is to apply Instant Redeemable Coupons (many shoppers call them "peelies," since you peel them off the product package) directly to products on the shelf. These IRCs are placed on specific products for specific purposes. Sometimes a product is being discontinued and the manufacturer wants to help move the product off the shelf so that excess stock won't have to be shipped back to the reclamation center. Many times the packaging is being changed, and the manufacturer uses IRCs in order to quickly close out products with dated packaging.

"Many consumers apparently aren't aware of the purpose of these IRCs or they just don't care. I apply the IRCs one week and return the next for a follow-up visit only to find that someone has removed every single IRC from product packages. The stores tell me they often spot customers pulling the IRCs off. When approached by store personnel and questioned about it, the customers say that there is no law against removing the IRCs. True, there is no written law. Are shoppers aware that manufacturers put a lot of time and money into placing the IRCs for a specific reason? Without them, the store may lose a sale or may get stuck with the product. Could you educate your readers on this problem?"

A: We've touched on in-store coupon theft before in my column, but I thought it was important to feature this letter because it represents the manufacturer's perspective instead of the shopper's. Manufacturers use peelies on certain products and the peelies' purpose is closely tied to moving those particular products off the shelf.

I've always considered coupons that are stuck to a product to be part of the product's packaging. Imagine if that coupon were printed on the surface of the box rather than stuck to it. Would you tear apart the box in the store in order to remove the coupon and then leave the product on the shelf? I hope not. And yet, that's essentially what many shoppers do when they remove peelies without buying the product.

Why do people take them? The most common reason seems to be that the shopper wants to buy the product, but not the particular flavor or variety that the peelie is stuck to. They remove the coupon from the first product and use it to buy the second. As we discussed last week, this often results in "off-label" couponing - using a coupon on a product for which it was not intended

Not long ago, my grocery store had a sale on toaster pastries. They were on sale for $1.25 a box, already a good price. The high-fiber variety happened to have $1 peelie coupons stuck to the boxes. Do the math.

Now, as I stood in the aisle, snapping up boxes of cheap, high-fiber varieties of the pastries, I witnessed several other shoppers peeling off coupons from the high-fiber boxes then putting a corresponding number of chocolate, brown sugar and creme varieties of the pastries in their carts. Of course, the peelie coupons stated "$1 off high-fiber" toaster pastries. Due to the current bar code setup, the peelies would scan on the other flavors, because the products share the same family code.

Unfortunately, the store was left with a shelf half-full of high-fiber toaster pastries, with the packages clearly showing peel-off residue where coupons used to be attached. This poses a problem for the store, too, because attractive packaging is a factor in sales. People don't want to buy products that appear less than perfect.

The simple answer? Don't remove peelies from packages unless you're actually buying the product to which they are attached. Period.

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.supercouponing.com. E-mail your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.