Couponers across the country are frustrated with the increase in coupon redemption quantities being specified by coupon quantity limits. Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal, and Colgate Palmolive, among many others, are specifying a limit of 4 like coupons to be redeemed in a single shopping trip. There was even the Scotch Shipping Tape coupon from last week that specified a limit of 1! Overall, we’re seeing some limit in about 40% of all coupons, so it’s becoming a big issue. Let’s talk about these limits. Are they enforceable? Can the computers verify whether you are using too many coupons? Are there any ethical issues if you deliberately try to buy more than the limit?
We’re not talking about the terms that say “limit one coupon per purchase”, which means that you can’t redeem two manufacturers coupons on the same item. These new limits are designed to keep couponers from loading up on great deals. Manufacturers hate extreme couponing, but redeeming four coupons is hardly extreme couponing. Face it – manufacturers want you to pay as much as possible for their products!
First the easiest question to tackle. It is not currently possible for computers to verify whether you are exceeding the limits stated on a coupon. A store’s computer can count to see if you are using more than say 5 of any coupon, but there’s nothing in the barcode to specify a quantity limit that the computer can check against. So Kroger could count to make sure that you are not using more than 5 of the same coupon, but the computers can only enforce the same limit for P&G as for Scotch. Between you and me, I have figured out the technology so that they could change the barcodes to include a limit on each coupon, but I am keeping this secret to myself. It’s ironic that the entire DataBar system was designed so that stores could allow their computers to validate your coupon purchases, but then the manufacturers have added terms that can only be checked manually!
Now the ethics. When the new barcodes (called “DataBars”) became the standard three years ago, coupons officially became digitized. Legally, this means that the DataBars became the legally binding portion, trumping the written language. If manufacturers wanted to include quantity limits, then they could have designed the DataBars to add a field. It would have been very easy at the time, but they chose not to. I won’t get into the technicalities, but there’s a strong argument that these limits are not legally binding. Our position is that we worry mostly about our store’s limits on like coupons. Our Kroger is limit 5, Publix is 8. Those are the limits that we believe are important.
So, if the computer can’t verify the quantity, and the legality is at question, then why are they worrying about this language? Manufacturers have been working for years to try to limit how many coupons we can redeem. They’ve employed technology to watch for coupons that are cut in stacks (they coined the appalling term “gang-cut” for this). Their redemption systems even watch for coupons that have the same staple holes! This is simply another brick in the wall. Some consumers will be scared into voluntary compliance. Some retailers will use the language as justification for limiting our purchases – we see this happening at Publix stores that have told their employees to try to find reasons to reject coupons if they can. At least for now, it’s not going to change the behavior at Wal-Mart, Kroger, or other stores that rely on their computers to validate coupons as intended.
As always, the final decision whether to accept a coupon is up to the retailer. If you really want to buy more items, then put your groceries in the car, and then go back into the store for another 4 items. Happy couponing!