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It seemed a little too good to be true at first. And then it got worse. Now the saga of the Lay’s printable coupons may be reaching a conclusion – but only after confusing customers, a West Coast supermarket chain, a major printable coupon network, one of its top affiliates, and one of the largest snack food companies in the world.

It all started last Friday evening, when three printable coupons popped up on the Coupon Network printable coupon site: $1 off one 10oz+ bag of Lay’s, $3 off 2 bags and $3 off 1 bag. Word spread fast, and the coupons ran out of prints quickly. Aside from those who may have been a little surprised at the high value of the coupons, or wondering why they printed with a small “WinCo Foods” logo, few questioned their legitimacy.

A few days later, the same coupons resurfaced on a different website. The printable coupon aggregator “Penny Pincher Gazette” displayed them on their Coupon Network feed, even though the coupons were no longer available on Coupon Network itself. And that’s when the real trouble started. Many who printed the coupons reported being able to print an unlimited number, all with the same unique ID’s – reminiscent of the recent Toys “R” Us coupon fiasco (read: “Toys ‘R’ Oops“). And couponers started asking questions.

Frito-Lay’s initial response was to cry “fraud”. The company is particularly sensitive to fraudulent coupons – in 2009, counterfeit coupons for “Free Doritos” began circulating on the internet. “The impact of this fraudulent coupon could run in the multiple millions of dollars,” a spokesperson said at the time.

This time, Frito-Lay’s emailed response to those questioning the validity of the printable Lay’s coupons was as follows:

“The coupons being spread throughout the internet for Frito-Lay snacks are counterfeit. They were not created, authorized or distributed by Frito-Lay.  We are taking steps to notify our retail customers about these fraudulent coupons and to identify its source. You should not knowingly use a counterfeit coupon.  We sincerely apologize for the disappointment and confusion this has caused. Please watch for valid coupons and sales in stores, magazines, Sunday newspaper ads, and on our official websites.”

Frito-Lay further explained that they don’t offer printable coupons at all, and haven’t for a number of years. This came as news to most couponers, who have recently seen coupons for Frito-Lay products offered on legitimate printable coupon sites like Coupon Network, Common Kindness and Smartsource.

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It also came as news to Coupon Network, which is not often accused of offering “fraudulent coupons” that are “not created, authorized or distributed” by manufacturers, and causing them to “spread throughout the internet”.

The Penny Pincher Gazette was next to weigh in, via email to those who printed the coupons offered on its site:

“Because of the unbelievable coupon value and the fact that the coupons were not available on the Coupon Network website, we have received thousands of support emails asking if these coupons might be fraudulant (sic). While the availability of the coupons was due to a technical mistake, our contacts there have assured us that the coupons are valid and can be used! So for those of you who were able to print these in time, you got one heck of a good deal! However, please note that if you were able to print multiple coupons that have identical bar code numbers, you are only allowed to use one of these at the store.”

A much cheerier explanation than Frito-Lay’s. And not a very comprehensive one. If they were made available due to a “technical mistake”, were they really valid? And wasn’t the larger “technical mistake” the fact that users were able to print “multiple coupons that have identical bar numbers”?

Miles Olsen, one of the owners of the Penny Pincher Gazette, later followed up with us. As an affiliate of Coupon Network, the Penny Pincher Gazette had no control over the coupons’ appearance on the site, Olsen explained. The coupons came from Coupon Network, which has not yet been able to determine why they popped up on the Penny Pincher Gazette and apparently not on any of its numerous other affiliate sites. Coupon Network is leading the investigation into not only how the coupons were made available on the Penny Pincher Gazette, but it’s also looking into the various reports that users could print an unlimited number from the site, all with the same unique ID. In fact, some users report that coupons printed by different people in different parts of the country ALL printed with one single “unique” ID.

The coupons surfaced yet again on Wednesday, on the WinCo Foods Facebook page – a full five days after the “technical mistake” caused them to appear on the Coupon Network site, and then the Penny Pincher Gazette. Representatives of the Idaho-based supermarket chain assured customers they were legitimate coupons, even though Frito-Lay had already publicly branded them “fraudulent”. “Similar coupons were accidentally released to public coupon sites by the third party that manages the coupons,” a WinCo representative said. “The ones hosted on our app are the ones that were supposed to be released for our WinCo customers and are valid at our stores.”

Coupon Network later confirmed WinCo’s explanation. “These coupons published are legitimate,” a Coupon Network representative wrote, continuing:

“They were intended to be issued to a very limited number of geographic-specific Facebook pages. Instead, as result of our mistake, they were more widely published through a number of our affiliate sites. Please know that our affiliates were not publishing a fraudulent/counterfeit offer. We expect that retailers will accept those coupons in accordance with their established coupon redemption policies, and we have confirmed with the manufacturer that retailers will be appropriately reimbursed for redemptions. Please accept our apologies for this mistake.”

Frito-Lay finally followed up on Thursday, confirming Coupon Network’s statement and offering us this response:

“A series of coupons for Lay’s potato chips were recently offered through one of Frito-Lay’s retail customers, WinCo Foods. Due to a technical error with the vendor that created and distributed the coupon, several were mistakenly distributed online beyond WinCo’s planned distribution, without Frito-Lay’s knowledge. This initially created some miscommunication about the authenticity of the coupons. While the error was outside of Frito-Lay’s control and management, these Lay’s potato chip coupons will be treated as valid. We have been assured that WinCo Foods will honor these coupons at their stores within the guidelines outlined on the coupon. As with all retailer-specific coupons, it is the choice of other non-WinCo Foods retailers to honor or not honor the coupon. If they choose to honor the coupon, Frito-Lay will support the redemption.”

A much more comprehensive reassurance than Frito-Lay’s earlier comment: “Our coupon team is looking into this and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” But then couponers knew all along that these coupons were never “fraudulent”, and that Frito-Lay’s left hand apparently didn’t know what its right hand was doing – while one division was setting up a coupon offer with WinCo Foods, another division, alarmed by reports of a coupon it knew nothing about, quickly branded the coupon counterfeit and scrambled to figure out what was going on.

“Our coupons were set up directly by our Frito Lay contact for our customers in areas where we have stores,” explained WinCo. Earlier, they had expressed confidence that the coupons were “only displayed to those that live in our area, all others will see the message saying it’s not available.” But that proved not to be the case. Anyone could see them on WinCo’s Facebook page, and print them – the same way anyone could print them from Coupon Network and the Penny Pincher Gazette. They don’t call it the “World Wide Web” for nothing. If you put high-value printable coupons on the internet, couponers across the country will find them. Quickly.

Manufacturers can, and sometimes do, refuse to honor legitimate coupons when things get out of hand. Coupon Network and Frito-Lay say that won’t happen this time. But some stores that have heard rumors and misinformation about “counterfeit Lay’s coupons” may decide to refuse them. And some people who were left frustrated and confused after printing the coupons, have already destroyed them.

The mistakes made here are many: Coupon Network making the coupons more widely available than they were meant to be. The Penny Pincher Gazette initially downplaying the very serious problem of allowing multiple prints of coupons with the same unique ID’s. WinCo Foods thinking the coupons were only visible to customers in its area. Frito-Lay alarming customers and retailers by crying “fraud” before fully investigating, and then being the last one to weigh in with an explanation.

The solution – apart from the Penny Pincher Gazette problem – could have been as simple as three little words: “Redeemable”, “Only” and “At”. The WinCo Foods logo that printed on the coupons is a meaningless adornment. “Redeemable Only At WinCo Foods”, however, is unequivocal. WinCo Foods would then be correct in saying they were only for their customers. Other retailers would be correct in refusing to accept them. And Frito-Lay would be correct in denying reimbursement to any other retailer that did accept them. And it wouldn’t matter one bit how many different websites offered the coupons.

So if you managed to print any of the Lay’s coupons and you’re a WinCo Foods customer, enjoy your cheap chips. For anyone else who printed the coupons, better hope your store doesn’t still think they’re counterfeit. And for Coupon Network, WinCo Foods and Frito-Lay: “Redeemable Only At”. Just saying.

In summary, Coupon Network’s and Frito-Lay’s statements stand: that the coupons printed directly from Coupon Network, and directly from the WinCo Foods Facebook page, are 100% legitimate, and retailers will be reimbursed for them. The question remains whether the coupons printed from the Penny Pincher Gazette, made available through no fault of its own, are equally legitimate. They are usable, they will scan, retailers will submit them for redemption, and someone will reimburse the retailers – whether it’s Frito-Lay, or whether Coupon Network accepts financial responsibility for the glitch.

Coupon Network is investigating, but it appears there will not be an official “ruling” on whether the Penny Pincher Gazette versions of the coupons are “legitimate” or not, since by the time the investigation is complete, many of these coupons will already have been redeemed. So the final question is: is it the right thing to do, to use a coupon you may have printed from the Penny Pincher Gazette, knowing that it may be one of thousands that contain the exact same “unique” ID, and Frito-Lay or Coupon Network will be on the hook for potentially tens of thousands of dollars more than was budgeted for this coupon campaign? You will have to answer that question for yourself.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Lay's Coupon Confusion | The Couponing Couple

  2. Pingback: Giant Eagle ~ Weekly Ad Aug 30 - Sept 5 - Page 5

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