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Unilever-Pinnacle products

(UPDATE: Be sure to read this followup: “New Buyout Could Wipe Out Worst Coupon Wording Ever”)

Better make room in your stockpile for pasta sauce – soon, the coupon deals may be better than ever. And while you’re at it, you might want to stock up on salad dressing, cake mix and frozen vegetables – because soon the coupon deals as we know them, may be done.

Normally, changes of ownership among products in the grocery aisles don’t generate much notice from shoppers, since the products and the packaging typically stay the same. But when those products change hands between companies with very different approaches to coupons, you can bet couponers will notice.

That could be the case, in a couple of big grocery product buyouts recently. One, involving two popular pasta sauces, could prove to be very good for couponers. Another, involving a host of other grocery products, may not turn out quite so great.

On Thursday, Unilever announced the sale of its Ragu and Bertolli pasta sauce brands, to a company that most American shoppers have probably never heard of – the Mizkan Group of Japan. Mizkan owns a handful of specialty products that you may or may not have seen or purchased before, like Holland House cooking wine, World Harbors sauces, and Mitsukan and Nakano rice vinegars.

It’s a deal that could make many couponers very happy.

Why? First of all, Unilever has become increasingly stingy with its coupons in recent years. A couple of years ago, the company offered plentiful printable coupons on its “Making Life Better” website, and there were no limits on how many of its paper coupons you could use. Today, there’s not a coupon to be found on the website, and all Unilever coupons now have the wording “maximum of two identical coupons allowed in same shopping trip” – much more restrictive than many other companies’ limit of four.

And on occasion, including earlier this year, Unilever offers one of the lowest value coupons many couponers have seen since the 1970’s – a whopping 20 cents off a jar of Ragu.

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Don’t spend all of that savings in one place!

Couponers have complained that such low values, and limits, makes it difficult to use coupons to stock up on a pantry staple like pasta sauce. “Totally unreal,” one commenter complained on the coupon forum “A Full Cup”. “2 jars of sauce doesn’t even make a full pot of sauce for my crew.”

Mizkan, in contrast, is about as coupon-friendly as they come. Every year, on their website, they release new printable coupons for all of their products – in PDF format. There are no restrictions on how many you can print, or use at one time, and the coupons don’t expire until the end of the year. Once the Unilever sale is finalized in June, if PDF coupons for Ragu and Bertolli are added to Mizkan’s website – get ready for a nationwide pasta sauce shopping spree, as shoppers long limited to two coupons per shopping trip, stock up with abandon.

Of course, that also raises the possibility of widespread abuse. Plenty of companies have been burned by offering PDF coupons with no print limits. Mizkan likely hasn’t faced that problem, since it sells relatively obscure products that most shoppers don’t buy in bulk – how many bottles of rice vinegar or cooking wine could you possibly need in a stockpile, after all? There’s a good chance Mizkan could step up its game, and take a more sophisticated approach to coupons. But if it sticks with the types of coupons it offers now, and if shoppers coupon responsibly, plentiful PDF coupons for pasta sauce could prove to be a very nice change of pace.

Meantime, another buyout may not turn out quite so well for couponers. Last week, Hillshire Brands announced its purchase of Pinnacle Foods. The transaction involves many more products – Hillshire owns brands like Jimmy Dean and Sara Lee, and Pinnacle owns everything from Duncan Hines to Birds Eye to Wish-Bone (which, coincidentally enough, it acquired from Unilever just last year).

Both companies offer plenty of coupons, in inserts and online. So why could this prove to be a bad deal for couponers?

In short, Hillshire’s coupon policies make Unilever’s look generous. About a year ago, it added the fine print “limit one coupon per person and per transaction” to most of its coupons. Limit one! That means you can’t even use coupons on a two-for-one special.

That’s proven to be a bit of an annoyance to couponers – though again, how many Sara Lee pound cakes and Jimmy Dean sausages does a typical shopper need to buy at one time? It’s a much different story when it comes to Pinnacle’s products. Cake mixes, salad dressings and frozen veggies are key ingredients in many couponers’ stockpiles. That could change dramatically, if they can only use one coupon at a time to buy Duncan Hines, Wish-Bone and Birds Eye products – not to mention other Pinnacle holdings like Vlasic pickles, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Log Cabin syrups, Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish and Hungry Man frozen dinners.

So take an inventory of what you have in your pantry. If you’re low on pasta sauce and are holding out for a great deal, you might do well to hold out a bit longer. But if you’re low on cake mix, pickles, salad dressing, syrup or frozen meals and veggies – better grab your coupons and stock up now, while you still can.

(UPDATE: Be sure to read this followup: “New Buyout Could Wipe Out Worst Coupon Wording Ever”)

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