Q: "Recently, you wrote in your column about the ethics of point-of-sale coupon pads, and how shoppers shouldn't take more than they can reasonably use. Here is a hypothetical version of a similar situation. Your family loves Cereal X. A supermarket ad has it listed for a terrific price; it's such a great deal that you're ready to stock up. At the store, you find just six boxes of the cereal on the shelf. Without knowing if the store has any more in the stockroom, do you buy all six or do you leave some for other customers?"
A: I'm asked this question often. As a coupon shopper, I do stock up during great sales. So, would I consider myself a "shelf-clearer?" It's never my intention to clear the shelves at any store, although, as this reader points out, when there's a great sale going on smart shoppers who spot the deal may wipe out the store's stock before the sale ends, especially if the store didn't anticipate demand for a particular product.
Any time I speak with a group of coupon shoppers, it quickly becomes clear that when it comes to great sales, there are two camps in the world of couponing. Some feel that shopping is a "first come, first served" situation. Others believe shoppers should buy in moderation and leave some behind for other shoppers.
To me, a shelf-clearer is someone who will buy a disproportionately large quantity of an item, more than they'll likely use any time soon - 20 or more of the same item comes to mind. There's a difference between buying a reasonable number of products and buying everything in sight.
If, in the above example, I want to buy six boxes of cereal and there are only six boxes left on the shelf, I will likely buy them, even if they're the last six in the store. My logic is this: if it's a particularly hot item, there's not much difference if I buy four and leave two (which will be snapped up by the next shopper, leaving the shelf bare) or just buy six (also leaving the shelf bare.) Stores often receive stock several times a week. While these may be the last six boxes of this particular cereal at this time, tomorrow night the shelves could be full again.
Understand, too, that if a product takes up a lot of space on the shelf, it also doesn't take many shoppers to clear it out completely. One of my stores had a great sale on vegetable oil, which was involved in a Catalina sale. Shoppers received a $10 Catalina back for buying 5 bottles of oil. But how many bottles of one brand of vegetable oil are normally on the shelf at the store? Perhaps 20. So, the first four people that came in to buy 5 bottles cleared the shelf until it was restocked.
I do find it interesting that when the shelves are empty during a great sale, shoppers blame other shoppers. I look at the other side of the equation. Why didn't the store anticipate that the products in question would move quickly off the shelves? Stores know well in advance what their sales will be, though they tend not to look at these ads through the same eyes as a coupon shopper. When stores are better prepared to anticipate what shoppers will buy during a great sale, they can try to order enough stock to meet demand. The flip side of this is that stores also don't want to overbuy, and be stuck with too much of a particular item.
When all else fails, though, don't forget to get a rain check. Many stores offer rain checks, which will ensure you can buy the item at the same price (usually for the next 30 days) once it's back in stock.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.