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Cut coupons

Things could have gotten very messy very quickly, with coupons stacked up in your store’s back room, as the store wondered where to send them, when they’d get reimbursed, or whether they should even continue accepting any coupons at all until the whole thing got sorted out.

But that crisis appears to have been averted, now that a major coupon clearinghouse that got shut down due to concerns over the coronavirus, is up and running again.

NCH Marketing Services has reopened its two facilities in Mexico, where workers sort, count and add up the value of all the coupons sent to them by U.S. retailers, who then get reimbursed on behalf of the manufacturers that issued the coupons.

“We received authorization from the Mexican government to immediately reopen our coupon processing facilities in Mexico, ahead of the original target date at the end of the month,” NCH parent company Vericast’s Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Engle said in a statement to Coupons in the News. “Vericast has been fully operational since last week and we are prioritizing the safety and health of our employees as we resume normal processing.”

NCH is one of the two major coupon clearinghouses that, together, collect the vast majority of paper coupons used in American stores. Retailers gather up the coupons they collect from shoppers and send them off to NCH or Inmar Intelligence, who then truck them over the border to their facilities in Mexico to be sorted and counted.

For decades, this has been an efficient and cost-effective way to handle coupons – until, that is, the coronavirus came along.

Hundreds of mostly American-owned companies operate thousands of factories and other facilities in northern Mexico, where labor costs are quite a bit cheaper than they are in the U.S. But while U.S. business largely ground to a halt in March and April, many U.S.-owned facilities in Mexico continued to operate. Officially, only essential businesses were allowed to stay open, while others were ordered to close – but some American companies insisted they were “essential” in order to keep their doors open and their employees working.

Some workers took matters into their own hands and went on strike, demanding that their workplaces be closed, or at least be forced to provide better working conditions. Local governments began to take notice, ordering that companies comply with worker safety standards – or close.

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It was in this environment that NCH was ordered to suspend its operations in Mexico last month. “Both the federal and state governments of Mexico recently notified all U.S-based businesses operating in the state of Chihuahua – including our NCH facilities in Mexico – that due to the temporary COVID-19 pandemic response orders, operations must cease at this time,” Engle said at the time.

NCH at first appeared caught off guard by the shutdown, saying it would “explore business continuity solutions,” while advising retailers to “hold onto their coupons” while it figured out a backup plan. That plan ended up being put into place a few days later, with NCH announcing that it would be “activating a U.S.-based processing center” until it could get its Mexican facilities up and running again by the end of the month.

But employees were informed last week that the doors would be opening a few weeks earlier than expected, as NCH got the okay to reopen, with new health and safety protections in place for its employees.

For its part, Inmar says there’s been no interruption to its own coupon processing business. “Our local management team has been working closely with the local Mexican government to ensure that our facilities meet or exceed all local, state and federal regulations,” Inmar said in a statement to Coupons in the News. “Our facilities remain operational and have been inspected multiple times by local government and have received exemplary marks for the procedures we’ve put in place to ensure the safety of our employees.”

While authorities have given NCH the all-clear, some employees were still nervous about returning last week, expressing their concerns in a Facebook group for NCH employees. “I am afraid to go to work,” one wrote. “They are more interested in coupons than the health of their more than 300 or 400 employees,” another employee griped. “They say the company is essential, but I don’t know why it’s essential,” a group member wondered. “Essential for the USA maybe,” another responded. “Here, coupons are not essential for anything.”

One can argue about whether counting coupons in the middle of a global pandemic is really essential. But grocery stores certainly are. And with many shoppers having to stock up on groceries, while simultaneously having to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from, coupons could prove to be a lifesaver. And if there was no one to collect and count the coupons – many more retailers might have made the decision to quit accepting paper coupons altogether.

“With the current rate of joblessness and financial uncertainty that many Americans are facing, shoppers are looking for and needing coupons more than ever,” Inmar said. “Retailers and manufacturers rely upon efficient and reliable validation and reconciliation of coupons to deliver savings to their shoppers.”

So if you’ve never really thought about where your coupons end up after you hand them to your cashier, now you know. And if you’ve ever taken coupon savings for granted – you can thank some hard-working employees in Mexico for making sure you continue to enjoy those savings, right when you need them the most.

Photo by rose3694

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