Rummaging through one of your grandmother’s endless towers of paper, you come across a seeming treasure trove of vintage coupons. Except for a handful with dates back to before your birth, the vast majority say “no expiration date”, or “NED” in manufacturer’s coupon lingo. For once, you are thrilled with Grandma’s hoarding. Now the $64,000 question: can you still use these coupons?
This is a simple question that has a less than simple answer: maybe. The issuer needs to still be in business, the product needs to still be available, and the coupon must have a valid barcode. So the Total cereal vintage coupon shown below with no barcode would be unlikely to be accepted in your grocery store.
I know that some of you are thinking “but no expiration date means valid forever.” But we understand that companies and institutions go out of business. Just try to pay your bills with Confederate States of America currency! Our society recognizes that there is the implicit qualifier “as long as the manufacturer markets that product”.
Retailers will generally accept a manufacturer’s coupon only if they can reasonably expect to receive reimbursement from the manufacturer. Manufacturers tell us that coupons are contracts, but unlike most simple contracts, coupons involve three parties: consumer, retailer, and manufacturer. Even if the manufacturer might be willing to honor a coupon, a retailer can still refuse to accept it. Stores can establish any coupon acceptance policy as long as the policy doesn’t discriminate and is consistently enforced.
Looking at those vintage coupons, you can forget about redeeming any that don’t have barcodes such as the coupon for Total shown above. Before UPC-based coupon barcodes in 1985, retailers would have to sort coupons by hand in order to send them to the correct manufacturer. Now it’s all done by machine, and a coupon that isn’t machine-readable creates a big problem. Your friendly store manager might accept one or two old Tide coupons without barcodes, but she knows that she has to absorb those costs in the customer goodwill column.
Then there’s the issue that companies and products come and go. Those coupons for Pac-Man Cereal are great collector’s items, but they have no value in the store because Pac-Man cereal went out with Member’s Only jackets. White Cloud bathroom tissue was discontinued by Procter & Gamble, only to be resurrected. Add to this the complication of brands that have changed ownership. Individual brands, brand families, and entire companies are sold or merged all the time, and the new owner is under no legal obligation to honor old coupons.
Sometimes manufacturers honor coupons for some products but not for others. General Mills acquired Pillsbury in 2000. After the merger, General Mills retained many Pillsbury brands, markets them under the Pillsbury name, and honors all coupons for those products. But General Mills sold the rights to the Pillsbury name for boxed baking products and cake frosting to Smucker’s. Now General Mills makes Pillsbury brand refrigerated dough products, but Smucker’s makes Pillsbury brand dry baking mixes. As a result, those 1990’s NED coupons for slice-and-bake cookies are still perfectly valid, but Pillsbury cake mix and frosting coupons from the same era cannot be used against “Pillsbury” cake mix purchases today.
If the coupon has a valid barcode and the product is still made by the same company, then there’s a decent chance that the coupon is still valid. You can match the numbers on a coupon with the old UPC barcode to the UPC code on products on store shelves to see if the coupon will still scan.
We have actually used quite a few vintage coupons in our campaign to Clip Hunger. Just this past week we used some $.10 vintage coupons for LeSeur peas at Publix. The values may be lower on vintage coupons, but coupons for LeSeur Peas are very rare, so we were thrilled to get the additional savings.
The great news if that even if the coupons are no longer usable in stores, there are collectors who will buy the lot on eBay!