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Grocery checkout

“We’ll take it – this time.” If you’ve ever been told that before, you know that little phrase can be like fingernails on a blackboard. It’s what cashiers and managers say to end a disagreement over a coupon, when they don’t want to admit that you’re right, but just want to make you go away.

Now the industry may be realizing that cashiers don’t always know best. If it’s true that “the customer is always right,” then the inverse must also be true – when it comes to coupons, store employees can sometimes be wrong.

That was one of the messages shared at last month’s Industry Coupon Conference. The annual gathering of coupon professionals allowed a few real couponers into their confab, to help shed some light on the experiences of those who actually use the little slips of paper that the industry churns out. “Hear it from the source!” the organization proclaimed, promising that the panel members would discuss “how they get them, where they use them and their likes and dislikes regarding coupons.”

One of the most surprising takeaways, according to moderator Phil Lempert, the “Supermarket Guru”, was that ill-informed cashiers were perceived as “the enemy”. Panel members “related nightmare stories where they were in head-to-head arguments over coupons,” Lempert writes in a Supermarket News column.

We’ve all been there – a coupon for “any size” product, refused on a trial sized item. A coupon for one in a range of products, refused because it didn’t match what was “in the picture”. Or the all-purpose, ever-frustrating, “it didn’t scan so I can’t take it.”

The only thing surprising about this to couponers, is that industry professionals would find this surprising.

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Perhaps some shoppers see cashiers as the enemy, because some cashiers perceive couponers that way. We’re all just greedy hoarders out to scam the store, after all. That’s what some retailers believe (read: “Contempt For Couponers? What Retailers Really Think”). And it’s apparently what some at the coupon conference thought as well. Noting that the consumer panelists were “mid- to heavy coupon users (but fell short of the dreaded ‘extreme couponers’ group),” Lempert said the first reaction to their complaints about cashiers was “sure, they want to avoid the cashier so they could take advantage of the store.”

But further discussion revealed the real truth. “The more they discussed the concept, it became clear that it wasn’t about cheating the store, it was about avoiding conflict with cashiers who clearly did not want to redeem their coupons or wouldn’t take the time to read the fine print.” And the only guaranteed way of avoiding conflicts like that, is to avoid the store where such conflicts tend to occur. Unless they’re okay with losing customers, retailers who alienate couponers do so at their peril.

Of course, no one wants to see a cashier as an enemy. They’re just doing their job, and many have said they’ve not adequately trained on coupon acceptance, or on their store’s own policies. All they know is that they can get in trouble for accepting an invalid coupon, so the path of least resistance is to deny any coupon they’re not sure about.

But that approach is simply bad for business – for both retailers and manufacturers. Proving once again that there’s an academic study for everything, two researchers produced a report in 2009 for The Journal of Retailing, studying how cashiers’ perceptions of couponers affected coupon use. In the catchily-titled “Perceived Discrimination, Cashier Metaperceptions, Embarrassment, and Confidence as Influencers of Coupon Use,” the authors concluded that “when in-store interactions and experiences are favorable (i.e., consumers are made to feel welcome at the store and confident in their coupon use by store personnel and customers around them), they will happily redeem coupons and look for more opportunities to use them. When interactions are unfavorable (i.e., consumers are made to feel unwelcome and discriminated against at the store, or denigrated for redeeming coupons by store personnel or other customers), they might choose not to redeem the coupons they had planned to use.”

The study ultimately makes recommendations to coupon providers. “As manufacturers create coupon offerings that are attractive to different segments, they should also consider and seek to influence how consumers are treated at the point when they decide whether or not to use their coupons, given that it can gave a significant impact on levels of coupon redemption.” If the burden is on manufacturers to help create a more pleasant checkout experience, perhaps they should be more clear in their fine print – unambiguously spelling out what a particular coupon can and can’t be used on.

Lempert suggests the burden is on retailers. “Perhaps it is time to add another module of training for cashiers,” he recommends. Coupon users just want “to improve the checkout and couponing experience and to be respected as people, and not to be made outcasts by their use of coupons,” he concludes.

Respect – for all parties involved – would be nice. In the meantime, you’ll have to settle for knowing that those who are complaining about your coupons are most likely paying full price for things you’re getting for free. And that, in the end, is priceless.

One Comment

  1. I wish a Dollar General would read this story. Their registers no longer scan the GS1 databar. Most of them used to scan, but starting around October, coupons that had scanned before don’t. I can’t believe they haven’t seen a difference in their quarterly sales yet. It makes it really too much of a hassle. I’m sure Walmart gets a lot of DG ad matches lately. So frustrating!

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