It was a quiet Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, and coupon clippers were looking forward to their first inserts of the new year. But when they picked up their Sunday paper, they discovered that something was missing.
It’s been five years now, since that January day in 2008 when Providence couponers learned there was no RedPlum coupon insert in their newspaper – and there wouldn’t be anymore. And they were only the first. Just as Valassis publicly rebranded its inserts with the “RedPlum” name, it also quietly instituted another change – taking its inserts out of select local newspapers, and sending them by mail instead. Getting your coupons delivered earlier in the week, in a shared mailer with upcoming grocery store ads, is “much more convenient,” said then-CEO Alan Schultz. “I think the reality is, the shared mail will probably be a replacement to newspapers.”
Half a decade later, how’s that effort going? And could your newspaper be next to see its coupon inserts disappear?
For that first year, few seemed to notice what Valassis was doing. But a year later, when it pulled its inserts from several more cities’ newspapers, the move was met with confusion – soon followed by howls of protest. Once couponers discovered their inserts were not missing by mistake, but by design, they lashed out. One coupon enthusiast started a (now-defunct) website, BringBackTheCoupons.com. “This is a big deal,” the website proclaimed. Valassis “does not realize how this will affect consumers like us.” It went on to advocate pressuring manufacturers whose coupons appeared in RedPlum inserts to help do something about it.
But Valassis stuck to its guns. “We are hearing some consumer grumbling,” Schultz said. “In Cleveland as an example, I think the newspaper and one of its affiliates is trying to rally consumers to encourage us to move back into the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.” But, he concluded, “we think it’s the right thing to do.” In subsequent years, as more cities’ coupon inserts migrated from newspapers to direct mail, the protests got a little quieter, and BringBackTheCoupons.com eventually faded away.
Today, around 13.6 million – or nearly a quarter of all RedPlum inserts – are sent by mail instead of in newspapers. At one point, Valassis said it would pull the trigger and make the change as soon as a newspaper’s circulation fell to less than 60% penetration in the market. That’s not necessarily the case anymore, Valassis tells Coupons in the News, though it continues to make “a market by market determination”. Safe to say, though, if your newspaper still carries RedPlum inserts, better hope you’re not the only one in your neighborhood who still gets the Sunday paper.
Essentially, Valassis discovered how to have it both ways. What’s good for newspapers is good for Valassis. What’s bad for newspapers – is good for Valassis, too. “In essence,” Schultz said as the mailed-insert effort began, “declining newspaper circulation becomes an opportunity for our shared mail product.” Some newspapers spooked by the possibility of losing their coupon inserts have even sweetened the pot for Valassis. “Our newspaper partners would very much like to keep our (inserts) in their newspaper,” Schultz said in 2010. “As a result of that, they tend to get more aggressive in terms of their pricing.”
It’s a win-win-win for Valassis. But what about for consumers?
Aside from the convenience factor of getting RedPlum coupons delivered to your home for free, mailed inserts also level the playing field, so to speak. No longer does the person who buys the most newspapers get the most coupons. Everyone with a mailbox – newspaper reader or not – gets one RedPlum insert each. In some areas, SmartSource even piggybacks onto RedPlum’s mailing list, so both companies’ inserts are delivered by mail instead of via newspaper. But then there are some areas that fall into a “black hole” – their newspapers don’t carry inserts, nor do they get them in the mail. “There are a number of factors” that determine who gets inserts, Valassis says, “largely driven by the needs of advertisers in the package.”
After a brief surge in Sunday newspaper circulation during the heyday of “Extreme Couponing”, Sunday circulation now appears to have leveled off (read: “Newspapers Are Dying and It’s All Your Fault”). So a mass mailing that could ultimately get coupon inserts into virtually every mailbox in America – or at least the mailboxes that advertisers find most appealing – is preferable to sticking them into newspapers and hoping that someone will buy them. The goal today, says Valassis’ current CEO Robert Mason, is “to give clients better penetration and allow them the ability to reach homes no longer subscribing to the newspaper.”
Some couponers whose inserts are now distributed by mail have found inventive new ways to get their hands on multiple copies. You might find them hanging around apartment complex mailboxes, where many inserts get tossed into the trash along with the rest of what non-couponers consider to be “junk mail.” At least it’s a step above dumpster diving. But don’t expect those who offer coupons to sympathize. Manufacturers don’t necessarily want dozens of their coupons to end up in one person’s hands. They’d rather have dozens of people get one each. Even if many who receive them, toss them out, that still represents many more potential customers than a single person stocking up at a discount.
Curiously, Valassis last month released a white paper called “Millennials & Newspaper – A Story of Engagement.” The study of 18-to-34-year-olds found that “traditional print media… plays an important role in the group’s shopping routines.” It went on to report that “91% of Millennials who use newspaper inserts do so to save money, and 60% said they would shop less without newspaper inserts.” An acknowledgement, perhaps, that many newspapers are still Valassis’ partners, after all – at least until Millennials and others get used to the idea of getting their inserts by mail instead.
“Consumers had been trained for 40 years to look for those consumer packaged goods coupons in their newspaper,” Schultz, the former Valassis CEO, said in 2010. “How long was it going to take us to train them to look in the Shared Mail package for them?” He estimated it took two years to get people used to the idea. “We have been working since then on plans to hurry up that process.”
So if you still get coupons in your Sunday newspaper, enjoy them. While they last.
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