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Lipton Starbucks coupons

Let’s travel back in time, to the not-too-distant past, when loophole-seeking couponers took their coupons’ wording quite literally. If the coupon said “good on any” product, they would use it on “any” product – the smallest, cheapest, trial or travel size they could find. Many of these products are actually packaged by other companies, so they’re coded differently from the coupons. And that means the coupons would invariably “beep” at the checkout. Cashiers would scratch their heads, customers would point out that “it does say ‘any’ product,” and the cashier would typically push it through.

Fast forward to today. Most companies have now added the phrase “not valid on trial/travel size” to their coupons. And the new DataBar bar codes contain much more detail about the products for which coupons are intended, so many more stores are reluctant – or even refuse – to “push through” any coupon that beeps.

So no more loopholes, no more confusion, right?

If only that were the case.

Two recent popular coupons prove that there are still cases where “any” doesn’t really mean “any”. And because companies and retailers now tend to believe a coupon’s bar code supersedes its wording, instead of the other way around – if the coupon beeps at checkout, you’re out of luck. And if you get a cooperative cashier who pushes it through anyway, then it could be your store that’s out of luck – and out the value of the coupon.

This time, it’s not trial and travel size products that are at issue. Instead, it’s a tangled web of product ownership, corporate partnership, consumer-facing branding and companies that are inexplicably unwilling to spell any of this out on their coupons.

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Take these two Lipton tea coupons that popped up this week on Coupons.com:

$3.00 off any TWO (2) Lipton Tea products$1.00 off any ONE (1) Lipton Tea product

Both clearly say they’re good on “any Lipton Tea products”. So many shoppers, and coupon bloggers, immediately thought of those single-serve, ready-to-drink bottles of Lipton tea, Lipton Brisk and Lipton Pure Leaf. Many of them typically sell for around $1.59, and frequently go on sale for a dollar – which could only mean lots of cheap and free Lipton tea products.

A similar scenario played out this summer, when Starbucks released a printable coupon good for “$4 off any 2 Starbucks coffee products”. Once again, there are single-serve, ready-to-drink bottles of Starbucks Frappuccino, Doubleshot and Refreshers that sell for well under 2 bucks apiece – which could only mean lots of cheap, free and even moneymaker Starbucks products.

Except for the dreaded “beep”. And you can blame Pepsi for that.

The Lipton drinks are technically not a “Lipton Tea product” – they’re a product of the “Pepsi Lipton Partnership”, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Unilever, the maker of Lipton. Neither are the Starbucks drinks technically a “Starbucks coffee product” – they’re a product of the “North American Coffee Partnership”, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Starbucks.

The Lipton and Starbucks drinks are coded as Pepsi products, not as Lipton and Starbucks products. Coupons actually meant for those specific products have PepsiCo redemption addresses. So the Lipton and Starbucks coupons – designed to work on Lipton and Starbucks’ own products – beep when they’re used on Pepsi’s drinks.

Just to make things even more confusing, if you were thinking about using one of those Lipton coupons on a 59-ounce refrigerated bottle of Lipton Pure Leaf tea – for a reason known only to the architects of PepsiCo’s corporate structure, that particular variety is coded as a product of Quaker Oats, which is also owned by PepsiCo. So if you use a Lipton coupon with a Unilever redemption address on a Lipton-branded PepsiCo product with a Quaker Oats redemption address – you just might make the cash register explode.

Many shoppers who are buying the single-serve drinks are reporting that their stores are rejecting their Lipton coupons, just as they rejected their Starbucks coupons, as soon as they beep. Others have said store staff have agreed to manually override the beeps and accept the coupons anyway. But when Lipton discovers that Pepsi products are flying off the shelves, while their bagged tea products go untouched by couponers, stores may regret their decision to accept the coupons if Lipton decides not to reimburse them.

Starbucks decided to “solve” the problem by reissuing its printable coupon, with the wording “valid only on Starbucks coffee products with a retail value of $4.99 or more.” Lipton, perhaps, sought to pre-empt the problem with the wording “coupon value may not exceed value of item purchased.”

That’s nice, for shoppers and cashiers who scrutinize all of the fine print and realize that the coupons don’t apply to the lower-priced drinks. A better idea might be to make the coupon good for “any Lipton/Starbucks product – excluding ready-to-drink”.

Problem solved! That was easy.

Instead, the companies have largely avoided consumers’ confused questions on social media, and Lipton representatives have so far ignored Coupons in the News‘ requests for clarification. So it’s been up to shoppers and stores to figure it out. Some shoppers insist that “any” means “any”, regardless of whatever byzantine corporate structure is causing the coupons to beep. But some stores insist that if any coupon beeps, they simply won’t accept it.

In the end, if companies expect their coupons to be used correctly, one would think it’s not too much to expect companies to define what the correct usage is.

Otherwise, get used to many more headaches next time an offer like these Lipton and Starbucks coupons come along. And in a world where we have Breyers’ Oreo ice cream, Betty Crocker’s Hershey chocolate brownie mix, Kellogg’s Jif peanut butter cereal, and many more like them – this co-branding coupon confusion could end up getting a whole lot worse before it gets better.

(Update: On Friday, four days after the coupons first appeared, and a day after this article was published, the Lipton coupons began printing with the restriction “excludes bottled Lipton tea.” So there you go.)

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: When a Coupon Good on “Any” Product, Really Isn’t - Simple Frugal Mom | Simple Frugal Mom

  2. FYI, Lipton has clarified on their FB page that their $1/1 and $3/2 coupons can be used on the Lipton bottled tea products. (I am hoping I am misreading the tone of this post, and you don’t mean to be as judgmental as you sound about coupons that are poorly worded/coded [whatever] by the manufacturer.) At any rate, thanks for the info.

    • I am seeing precisely the opposite on their FB page at the moment: “The coupon excludes bottled Lipton tea. We are working quickly to clarify this on the coupon.”

      And the tone here is not meant to be judgmental, it’s merely an explanation as to why the coupons beep on the bottled drinks, a situation that could easily be avoided if companies would word their coupons the way they expect them to be used – and provide a clear (or any) response when customers have questions. Looks like perhaps they are doing so now.

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