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Printable coupons: Tempest in coupon land

Q: "My favorite supermarket refuses to accept any coupons printed from the Internet. This is so frustrating for me because I would prefer to shop at this store, rather than its competitor. The other store does accept printable coupons. I read a statistic recently that printable coupon use is becoming one of the most popular ways to get coupons, but what are shoppers supposed to do if stores don't accept them? I don't want to shop at the other store, but I'm almost forced to, because they'll take the printable coupons."

A: I receive so many e-mails like this one that it's worth revisiting the topic. Printable coupon use has skyrocketed. According to Nielsen, in 2009, it was the fastest-growing category of coupons redeemed, jumping 263 percent over the previous year. There are a multitude of legitimate, manufacturer-issued coupons available on the Internet, both on manufacturers' sites and popular coupon portals and destinations.

Why do some stores refuse to accept Internet-printed coupons? Coupon fraud is the reason.

Most stores do not yet have the technology to determine which instances of a printable coupon are legitimate and which are photocopies. Photocopying a coupon printed from the Internet is one of the easiest forms of coupon fraud. A photocopy of a coupon looks almost identical to the original. But, if a store receives multiple photocopies of the same coupon, once those coupons go to the clearinghouse for redemption with the manufacturer, duplicates are weeded out and the store only receives reimbursement for the legitimate one.

The store takes a loss on each fraudulent photocopy it mistakenly accepted.

If a certain store or chain has ongoing problems with customers, who pass photocopied coupons, it's likely to create a blanket policy of "no Internet-printed coupons" to try to stop the losses.

This helps neither shoppers nor the manufacturers, who very much would like shoppers to use coupons to buy their products. I suggest first trying to determine if the no-Internet-printables rule is, indeed, the store's corporate policy. I've heard many stories of cashiers who refuse to accept printable coupons when the stores they work for have a corporate coupon policy that clearly states they should be accepted.

Let's assume that your store does, indeed, have a policy of not accepting any Internet-printed coupons. There isn't much that you can do, other than to take those printable coupons to the other store in town and use them there for the items you wish to buy. It's always worth expressing your feelings on this issue to both your store's manager and the store's corporate office.

If a store hears from many shoppers, asking, "Do you really want me to take my business to Store X across the street, which does accept printable coupons?" perhaps the policy will change.

In time, I believe that stores holding out on accepting Internet printable coupons will be forced to change, in order to remain competitive. A large grocer in my area had a policy of not accepting printable Internet coupons for many years, but the store recently amended the policy to allow two printable coupons for the same items per transaction. This is a fair compromise, because most sites online allow shoppers to legitimately print two of the same coupon. By only accepting two like coupons per transaction, the store also reduces the risk of being slipped dozens of illegal photocopies.

To read up on your store's policy on Internet printables, check the store's corporate web site or e-mail the customer service department and ask for a copy.

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.