Double coupons

As the country’s largest grocery chain, Kroger is getting all the attention today, as it rolls out a new low-prices program that also eliminates double coupons. But if you live in the affected area and are looking for sympathy, take a number. Grocery shoppers in Indiana were already dealt that blow a day earlier.

Sharp-eyed shoppers of Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets noticed that any reference to double coupons disappeared from the store’s website and weekly circular yesterday. The store had doubled coupons up to $.50, and as recently as last week promoted that fact on its Facebook page. In response to a question about tripling coupons, Marsh posted, “we don’t have any Triple Coupon events scheduled but we double coupons every day!”

But now they don’t. Customers took to Facebook looking for answers as to why the reference to double coupons had disappeared. Turns out, it was because double coupons themselves had disappeared. “Double coupons have ended,” Marsh confirmed. “As we strive to be more relevant and offer more value to every shopper who walks through our doors, it becomes necessary to change programs.” The store noted that it has been mailing out coupons, offering coupons at checkout and improving its digital coupon program. In addition, “we are excited to be able to offer additional values in store with our new Price Lock program and will continue to add programs that bring value every day.”

Customers expressed anger and disappointment in the policy, as well as in the quiet – almost sneaky – way they implemented it. No announcement, just a response to customer questions. If no one had asked, would they have said anything at all?

It’s enough to make you wonder whether double coupons are going the way of the dinosaur (why, here’s a story that asks just that: “Double Coupons: Dying Like Dinosaurs?”). Kroger eliminated double coupons in its Houston and Dallas-area stores in 2011, and will do the same for its Cincinnati-area stores next month (read: “Kroger Offers New Lower Prices! Oh, And No More Double Coupons”). Kroger-owned Ralphs stores in California did away with doubles in 2012, a move matched a few months later by its competitor Vons.

But other chains have experimented with, and ultimately relented on, eliminating double coupons in the past. Maybe the time just wasn’t right when they first tried it a few years ago. Does that mean the time is right now?

Double coupons have been seen as a blessing and a curse since they were first introduced, by someone, sometime in the 1970’s. No one is quite sure of the details – not even Kroger, which once claimed to have invented double coupons. While stores are reimbursed by manufacturers for the face value of coupons, the stores themselves bear the cost of doubling and tripling. The blessing comes in the form of the increased traffic they bring – the curse comes in the form of lower profits.

Several decades ago, manufacturers even experimented with double coupons of their own, issuing “double-savings certificates” on their own products, which offered to double the value of any coupon to which they were attached. But in 1981, the Wall Street Journal issued a dire warning that the practice of double couponing could not be sustained, calling them “self-defeating promotions” and “a destructive practice.” If that wasn’t enough, it piled on: “Double or triple coupons can lead to lengthy checkout lines, an increase in fraudulent redemptions and rapidly emptied shelves.”

But the practice continued on, despite some stores’ best efforts to put an end to it. In 1984, the U.S. Justice Department launched an antitrust investigation, looking into whether some New York-area supermarket chains had colluded, in agreeing to end their double coupon promotions at the same time. A year later, two stores pleaded no contest and were fined $275,000 each.

So, later, stores tried a different tack – “colluding”, though it wasn’t considered illegal, with manufacturers. That’s when 55-cent-off coupons, just above most stores’ 50-cent doubling limit, became more prevalent. The president of a marketing firm that did business with supermarkets and manufacturers told the Washington Post in 1992 that “supermarkets are putting pressure on the manufacturers to up the value of coupons to be above the doubling range. They are sorry they are in double coupons, because it comes out of their profits… But like airlines and their frequent flier programs, they can’t get themselves out of it.”

Nowadays, Walmart is the country’s number-one grocery retailer, and it doesn’t double coupons (though it has experimented with doubling as part of its ad-match program in limited areas). Refusing to double is certainly not hurting Walmart’s bottom line, so other grocery stores may finally be seeing an opening to put an end to doubles altogether. Plus, coupon values are rising, and many stores that double only up to $.50 are reluctant to raise that threshold. They’d rather just eliminate doubling. “Of the coupons available in the January 27, 2013 newspaper,” Kroger noted in a news release today, “65% had a value of $1.00 or more.” So doubling, it argues, has outlived its usefulness.

Then again, consider this piece of reporting: “Acme Markets announced it is reducing everyday prices in its Washington area stores on 250 popular grocery items,” the Washington Post reported – in 1979. The move was “being used instead of trading stamps (and) double coupons discounts.” Sounds awfully familiar to what’s going on now – and 34 years later, Acme is currently teetering on the edge of oblivion (read: “Store Closings Bring Sadness – and Shrugs”).

We’ll see whether we have to wait 34 years to find out whether a similar fate awaits Marsh and Kroger.

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