Have you ever stocked up on anti-gas tablets just because you had coupons that made them free? Or bought adult incontinence products just for the overage?

There are many products that most of us would be embarrassed to buy if we really needed them. But somehow, if there are coupons available, many of us seem to lose our inhibitions about filling our shopping carts with wart removers, antidiarrheal medications and hemorrhoid creams.

But this isn’t just a phenomenon affecting couponers looking for deals. A new research study says coupons can make the purchase of embarrassing products less embarrassing for everyone.

Appreciating Anonymity: An Exploration of Embarrassing Products and the Power of Blending In” appears in the latest edition of the Journal of Retailing. The authors examine shoppers’ reluctance to buy embarrassing products – or their propensity to shoplift them, for fear of facing a cashier – and the remedies that can help them overcome their embarrassment.

And chief among those remedies are coupons.

“Promotional incentives, such as coupons, in-store discounts, or bonus buys, can mitigate the negative effect of embarrassment onto purchase intentions,” the study declares. “Even a highly noticeable product that shoppers find embarrassing to buy may still be purchased if a promotion is available. Shoppers seem to overcome the embarrassment to save money.”

Any kind of promotion will do, the researchers find, but their study concludes that coupons are the most effective.

Participants in the research study were asked to name three items they found most embarrassing to purchase in a store. Their answers were then compiled into a long list of 173 individual items. Among those most frequently mentioned were contraceptives, feminine products, personal lubricant and hemorrhoid cream.


The participants were then asked what, specifically, might help ease their embarrassment.

Some wished for more subtle packaging of embarrassing products. “The modern retail environment is packed with fantastic fonts, strategically designed color combinations and unique product forms, all competing to draw the attention of consumers in the retail space,” the researchers write. But “overtly standing out may not always be a good thing… for embarrassing products, firms should not brand their products with overt, flashy packaging but should instead opt for subtle product packaging cues.”

Next, there’s the matter of product placement in the store. Shoppers want to be able to pick out and purchase items without feeling like they’re being watched. “The anonymity experienced when purchasing an embarrassing product can be enhanced by placing the product in a more anonymous location, such as in an aisle versus an endcap,” the study suggests.

Finally, there are coupons. Shoppers said discounts could help them get over their embarrassment. In-store sales and bonus packs helped, but “purchase intentions were highest for participants who received a coupon and were significantly higher than all other promotion types,” the study finds.

“The power of a promotion will overshadow the embarrassment,” the study concludes. “This has important implications for retailers selling embarrassing products in that they can use promotions to overcome the negative impacts of embarrassment and the threat of stigma.”

In the end, the study’s findings are not just about improving the experience for shoppers, but improving the business prospects of retailers. As more people become comfortable with the idea of shopping for groceries and personal items online, it’s becoming easier to skip the store altogether and buy any embarrassing products from the comfort and anonymity of your own home.

And you can’t use paper coupons when you buy things online. So coupons and deals on embarrassing products may be just what it takes, to get shoppers back into stores.

So the next time you see a great deal on Gas-X, or a high-value coupon for Preparation H – it could be that brands and retailers are starting to take these researchers’ advice. And then, the only thing your cashier will be raising their eyebrows about, will be your savings.

Photo by shawncampbell


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