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COUPON QUEEN: The ins and outs of coupons for free products

It seems any time I pull out coupons for free products at the supermarket, people wonder how I got them. Whether it's the cashier or other shoppers in line, it's inevitable that someone will ask, "Where did you get that coupon for a free pizza?" "How did you get a coupon for free toilet paper?"

Coupons for free products are not terribly difficult to come by. While manufacturers sometimes run coupons for free items in newspaper inserts, they tend to use other means to distribute them.

One method that's exploded in popularity is online distribution. I'm not referring to printable coupons –– we'll get to those in a second. Many manufacturers offer free coupons via online promotions to their shoppers. I've recently received coupons for free yogurt, free coffee creamer and free cheese from offers that I responded to on the Internet.

Companies post free coupon offers in different ways. With the free yogurt, I happened to see a TV commercial inviting viewers to go to the yogurt's web site and request a free coupon.

The manufacturer of the coffee creamer used its Facebook page for a one-day offer of free coupons. I received the coupon for free cheese when I visited the manufacturer's web site one day to look for a printable coupon, and instead saw the offer to request a free coupon. All three coupons arrived via postal mail shortly after I requested them online.

Another great way to get free coupons for products you like and use? Take a moment to e-mail or write to the manufacturer. Whether it's a compliment or suggestion, many companies will send coupons, either high-value or for a free product, in return.

Manufacturers rarely offer print-at-home coupons for free products. Printable coupons for free products are extremely rare, and the majority of manufacturers do not offer them. Due to fraud, it's too easy for people to make photocopies and use far more coupons than the manufacturer intended for the promotion. Free printable coupons also make up the majority of counterfeit coupons.

If someone's going to "make" a fake coupon, they typically won't stop at a $1 offer. When a shopper uses a fake coupon, the store takes a loss, because the manufacturer won't reimburse the store for the discount. Because of fraud, most stores have a policy against accepting any printable coupons for free items.

This brings us to a recent e-mail from a reader.

Question: "My husband and I enjoy your columns. We read every one published our newspaper. Recently, I sent an e-mail suggestion to the manufacturer of our favorite brand of vitamins. The manufacturer, in turn, sent us a coupon for a free bottle of vitamins! But when we tried to redeem the coupon at checkout, the store informed us that they wouldn't honor the coupon because it was for a free product.

"The clerk said that the store honored Buy one, get one free coupons, but that they couldn't just give a product away for free. This puzzled us. The manufacturer would actually be paying for it and the store wouldn't lose money, correct? We persisted nicely and the cordial clerk asked the manager. The manager agreed to honor the coupon as an exception, but won't do it again. What's going on here?"

I think your store may have been trying to avoid the risk it would not be reimbursed the vitamin manufacturer. Perhaps they feared your coupon for a free bottle of vitamins was not a legitimate offer. I checked the coupon policy for your store, and there is nothing in it that states that the store will not accept a free coupon. I believe it was a misunderstanding. You may want to request a copy of the coupon policy via your store's web site to carry with you in the future.

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.jillcataldo.com. E-mail your own c.