If you looked really, really closely, you might have seen a new warning across the top of this past weekend’s RedPlum coupon inserts. But that tiny notification is only part of the story.
Valassis, the publisher of the RedPlum inserts, is doubling down on its recent efforts to thwart coupon insert sellers. A month after yanking Procter & Gamble’s brandSAVER from a suspected insert-theft problem area, it’s now done the same with its own inserts. And other coupon inserts, in other parts of the country, could be next.
It’s all happening right now in Southern California, an area where coupon inserts are in high demand among buyers, sellers – and thieves. Large-scale sellers who peddle thousands of inserts online each week have discovered that RedPlum inserts from that region are now particularly hard to find. Their realization comes a month after the December edition of the P&G insert also became scarce.
That’s because Valassis distributes P&G’s inserts in Southern California. And last month, it declined to deliver them to a particular distribution center whose security was determined to be suspect. The reaction from many insert sellers, who suddenly found that they could no longer get their regular supply of brandSAVERs from the Los Angeles area, seemed to confirm P&G’s and Valassis’ suspicions – enough so, that Valassis now appears to be withholding its RedPlum inserts from the same facility.
Coupon publishers have long tried to discourage the buying and selling of coupons, by implying that it’s illegal when it’s technically not. But the largest sellers are in a class of their own. Many of them get mint-condition inserts by the pallet, from “suppliers” who are simply stealing them from warehouses long before they’re opened, sorted, placed into Sunday newspapers or mailers, and delivered to their intended recipients. And that is definitely illegal. The publishers’ challenge has been determining where the thefts are regularly occurring – and how to stop them.
They’ve pleaded with the public for information. They’ve cheered when there have been isolated arrests of suspected coupon insert thieves. But now, in Southern California, they finally appear to be making some serious headway in stopping the thefts and cutting off the sellers’ ill-gotten supplies.
“January PG [P&G] is a mess,” one frustrated insert seller told customers last week. “I have had supplier after supplier back out on deals I had worked out with them. 3 suppliers to be exact. I was given excuse after excuse and constant delays.” Other sellers expressed similar concerns: “I got word that LA is now going to have a real hard time getting RP [RedPlum] now. We have an extremely hard time with PG these past couple months and now it seems it will be the same with RP.” Another pleaded for understanding: “To everyone who gets inserts from me, I hope you all understand that some things are out of my control.”
In order to ensure that the P&G and RedPlum inserts are getting to their rightful recipients, Valassis has sent notices to households all across Southern California that used to have the inserts dropped on their doorsteps. No longer will the inserts be hand-delivered from a facility where inserts were disappearing out the back door. Now, they’ll be delivered via the U.S. mail. “Coming in the mail, not the newspaper,” the notices read. “This way, more families can save more time and money.”
In recent years, Valassis has chosen to distribute coupon inserts via mail in certain regions when it became more economical to do so, or when it could reach more households that way as compared to the traditional method of delivering inserts in the Sunday newspaper. In Los Angeles, however, major newspapers like the L.A. Times still contain all of the coupon inserts. So Valassis’ latest move appears to be not so much a shift from newspaper distribution to mail delivery, as it is a clear effort to obstruct the insert sellers.
And then there’s that warning atop the RedPlum inserts themselves (click on the image above for a closer look). “AVOID COUPON FRAUD,” it reads. “The coupons in this booklet are void under the manufacturer’s rules if they are bought or sold. These booklets are intended for individual home or newspaper distribution. If you are buying or selling these booklets in bulk, you are likely trafficking in stolen property, which is illegal under state and federal law.”
Written in tiny, barely legible print, the warning is unlikely to scare off any buyers or sellers. It reads more like a cover-all-the-bases legal notice, so buyers and sellers can’t claim that no one ever told them what they were doing may well be illegal. Valassis representatives did not respond to a request for comment about the rationale behind publishing the notice.
In fact, Valassis isn’t sharing many specifics at all about its recent actions to combat insert sellers. When asked about the P&G inserts’ availability in Southern California last month, Valassis replied quickly – but vaguely – with a prepared statement: “Valassis remains committed to the secure delivery of our clients’ coupons and promotions. While we will not discuss specific clients or situations, we can state that Valassis utilizes a comprehensive security process to assure appropriate levels of protection and security are provided throughout the distribution process. When warranted, Valassis, in cooperation with its partners and clients, will take appropriate action to address or eliminate identified sources of potential security breaches.”
With its apparent success in cutting off the supply of illicitly-obtained coupon inserts in the Los Angeles area, it is perhaps safe to assume that this is only the beginning of Valassis’ efforts to choke off insert sellers’ supplies, and not the end. The insert publishers are working to identify other weak spots in the coupon insert supply chain, which could be enabling the theft and sale of inserts from other hot spots like Florida, Texas and Atlanta.
That warning printed on the RedPlum inserts may be too tiny to be effective by itself. But in the end, if the sellers can no longer get a hold of any more inserts, Valassis’ actions may end up speaking louder than its words.
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