How To Use Coupons

The coupon is one of the all-time best marketing strategies. It brings customers into a store, attracts them to certain products, saves them some money, then inspires them to spend the money the coupon saved them (or more) on other merchandise. Customers feel like they got away with something. Everyone wins.

That is, everyone wins unless the fine print needs to be examined. Coupons look great on the outside. Save 30%! The potential customer gets excited and goes to the store. She or he brings an item and a coupon to the register expecting to save 30%, but it turns out that the savings are 10%. The cashier then informs the customer that the 30% in large print on the coupon has “up to” printed in small letters next to it. Nine times out of 10, the customer buys the item anyway.

That ratio gets smaller when exclusions apply. The cashier explains that certain items and certain brands don’t take coupons. Every cashier at the Macy’s where I worked scanned the coupon anyway, both to prove the policy to the customer and on the off chance that the coupon does work. Now, depending on the department, customers go through with the purchase about five to seven times out of 10. Usually, they’re also buying something else that does take coupons, so it’s not a big deal. It depends on how familiar the customer is with the store’s coupon policy. The regulars don’t mind. If you’re not a regular, it can be frustrating. Cashiers understand this.

Here are some other things you should know about coupons.

  1. Make sure you’re using your coupon at the correct store. I can’t tell you how many times Sears customers gave me L.L. Bean coupons to use toward Land’s End merchandise. Some stores take competitors’ coupons, but some don’t, so always ask first.
  2. Go through your coupon collection before you shop and throw out the expired ones.
  3. Many brands that are not exclusive to department stores, like Nike, adidas, Puma, Under Armour, Lucky, Calvin Klein and POLO/Ralph Lauren, do not take coupons. That decision belongs to the companies, not the stores. (A manager once told me that is because they think coupons cheapen their brands. I think once your brand is sold in a department store, it cheapens itself, but that’s not my call.)
  4. Coupon codes from a store’s website or a Retail Me Not-type site can sometimes be used at the brick-and-mortar store as well.

People love coupons and markdowns so much that it doesn’t matter whether or not they actually save them money. I’ve been to stores that constantly offer “deep discounts”, but their merchandise’s original prices are so inflated that the deal is not a bargain as much as it is a reasonable price. Getting 50% off an originally $60 pair of shoes isn’t much of a deal when another store sells a similar pair for $30 every day. When J.C. Penney became that other store in 2012, the change was not well received. Yet no matter how little sense the “50% off $60” approach makes, it’s evidently the right approach for Penney’s. That’s the real meaning of “The customer is always right.”

It doesn’t mean that each individual customer should get whatever she or he wants. Once when I worked in Macy’s Handbags section, I had a customer whose purchase’s subtotal was $198. She wanted to use a coupon for $10 off a $200 purchase. The department manager, the aforementioned Lana, overhear us and informed the customer that the sales tax was not included in the $200, so she needed to spend two more dollars in order to use the coupon. The customer frantically grabbed other, smaller items to make up the difference. All of them were excluded from the discount. As you can imagine, she became very frustrated and the situation was taking so long that a line of customers had formed behind her. Still, Lana wouldn’t budge. Rules were rules. The angry customer gave up and left without buying the purse.

If I’d had the authority to overlook the two-dollar difference, I would have. I think making a $190 sale and keeping a customer happy are worth a two-dollar loss. Lana was not a cashier, however. She was a manager. Enforcing store policy was a higher priority for her. Other department managers probably would have given the customer the discount, but they weren’t obligated to do so. Lana was doing her job.

The most important thing to keep in mind when using coupons is that you are not entitled to discounts. Honestly, if you throw a fit every time one of your coupons is turned down, you have a good chance of having a manager make an exception for you. At the same time, you’re also giving people another reason to shop online: no one wants to have to wait for you. With the shift to online shopping comes the phasing out of paper coupons. And unlike those, coupon codes do not allow you to plead your case at checkout. If you want to keep coupons alive, just be considerate.

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