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Normally, this is the time of year when news organizations take a nostalgic look back at all the events of the year as it comes to a close.

But, honestly, who really wants to reminisce about 2020?! Can’t we just forget this year ever happened?

It’s been an unusual year, to say the least. But not everything about it was so bad, at least when it comes to coupons. So take a moment to read through Coupons in the News‘ ninth annual look back at the most memorable and meaningful events that impacted couponing this year – and beyond:

10. Another rebate app fades away

If there was a memorial wall for defunct rebate apps – we might need a bigger wall. Because the list of savings apps that have come and gone keeps getting longer.

This year’s departure wasn’t some newfangled startup that couldn’t break through, but one of the originals. SavingStar launched back in 2011, predating the likes of Ibotta, Checkout 51 and Fetch Rewards. It had already begun to fade in popularity when Coupons.com owner Quotient Technology bought it for a song in 2018, which suggested that one of two things would happen – the new owner would revive the flagging app with tons of new offers, or it would absorb the app’s features into its own Coupons.com app and then shut it down, the way it did with Shopmium.

It turned out to be the latter.

SavingStar officially wound down at the end of November. And not only did Coupons.com adopt its offers, it adopted SavingStar’s entire business model. But more on that later.

9. Even more doubles die off

Remember double coupons? While some stores still offer this once-popular perk, for other shoppers, doubles are a distant memory.

Those memories are slightly less distant, though, for shoppers in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, whose stores were happily doubling coupons this time last year – but aren’t anymore.

Kroger-owned Roundy’s, which operates the chains Pick ‘n Save, Copps, Mariano’s and Metro Market, ended its twice-a-week “Double Daze” double coupons promotion back in February. At about the same time, ShopRite stores in the Northeast slowly and quietly began phasing out double coupons in many of its locations, though not all of them. And Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle joined in, announcing the end of double coupons in its stores.

Double coupon fans had hoped Giant Eagle’s announcement might turn out to be a repeat of 2007, when Giant Eagle last announced the end of double coupons – then quickly backed down in the face of overwhelming shopper outrage. Back then, however, double coupons were almost an expectation, while nowadays, it’s a perk that many stores and shoppers are willing to simply shrug off.

“The end of double coupons” has been a part of Coupons in the News‘ year in review, for years. So if your store still doubles coupons – here’s hoping you don’t show up on this list in 2021.

8. Coupon use plummets, but just might bounce back

Another standard year-in-review entry in recent years, has been the overall decline in coupon usage. This year was no different, as figures showed fewer coupons were being distributed and even fewer were being redeemed.

And then a certain public health emergency came along, and made it all far, far worse.

Inmar Intelligence, which crunches the numbers each year, found that coupon usage and distribution plummeted in the first half of 2020, as manufacturers and retailers cut back on promotions and consumers were more interested in stocking up on what they needed, than they were in taking advantage of promotions.

But the good news, such as it is, is that coupon usage historically rises in a weak economy. Inmar found that coupon usage bottomed out in May and started rising again, as millions of Americans faced long-term financial uncertainty.

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So the prospect of more plentiful, more valuable coupons in the year ahead is a welcome development for couponers – but for most unfortunate reasons.

7. Points, perks – and payments

Just when you think you’ve made enough purchases and saved up enough points to redeem for rewards at your favorite retailer, everything changes. Two major retailers revamped their loyalty programs this year, while several other retailers introduced new programs – which will cost you.

Kohl’s introduced Kohl’s Rewards, which is not entirely unlike the former Yes2You Rewards, except points have been replaced with a simpler system of dollars earned for dollars spent. Walgreens followed with myWalgreens, which is not entirely unlike the former Balance Rewards, except points have been replaced with a simpler system of dollars earned for dollars spent.

Other retailers, meanwhile, had other ideas. Walmart introduced Walmart+, a subscription loyalty program that will give you free delivery and other perks for an annual fee. Hy-Vee introduced Hy-Vee Plus, a subscription loyalty program that will give you free delivery and other perks for an annual fee. And Giant announced plans to introduce – you guessed it – a subscription loyalty program that will give you free delivery and other perks for an annual fee.

Replacing points with dollars is a win for those seeking simplicity. Charging dollars for perks, meanwhile, is an experiment that more retailers are willing to bet will pay off.

6. Coupon crime doesn’t pay, but coupon criminals keep trying

Add up the losses from all the coupon crime cases this past year alone, and the total would easily end up in the millions of dollars. Using counterfeit coupons, and submitting coupons for items not purchased, are nearly as old as coupons themselves – but year after year, that doesn’t stop people from trying to get away with it.

The standard way of going about it is to use fake coupons to get free stuff. That’s what four Florida women were accused of doing over the summer, amassing more than $100,000 in merchandise from stores in several states. And just this month, several California residents were charged with using counterfeit coupons to amass huge stockpiles worth more than $200,000 that were advertised for sale online.

Others opted for cash instead of merchandise, like the three suspects accused of using fake coupons to scam Walgreens stores across Florida out of more than $30,000 worth of gift cards. A West Virginia woman admitted last month to carrying out a similar crime at numerous Kmart stores, racking up nearly $100,000 in gift cards.

But the boldest and costliest coupon crime this year – indeed, in many years – may have been the alleged scheme cooked up in California and carried out across the country. A dozen people were indicted over the summer on charges that they carried out an intricately-planned scam, fanning out across the country to misuse coupons, rewards and employee discounts to obtain millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise from Target.

As long as there are coupons, there will be people who try to take advantage of them – in all the wrong ways.

5. Ownership changes bring coupon changes

PayPal bought Honey and J2 Global bought RetailMeNot, which both companies say will help them expand access to online coupon codes. But one of those acquisitions created a bit of an issue when it comes to your Sunday coupon inserts.

With RetailMeNot no longer under the same corporate umbrella as insert publisher Valassis, the RetailMeNot Everyday inserts are now named after someone else’s company. The inserts were rebranded from RedPlum in 2018, after the coupon code site and paper coupon publisher became corporate cousins. But their uncoupling this year means Valassis’ inserts are in for another rebrand in the year to come.

As for the other major coupon insert publisher, we know little about what’s in store for SmartSource. Previous owner News Corp had been looking to unload SmartSource publisher News America Marketing for some time, complaining that its printed inserts in particular were a drag on the company’s profits. A private equity firm specializing in “businesses in transition” bought the company, changed its name to Neptune Retail Solutions, and clammed up. The new owners brought in new management, didn’t publicize the name change very widely, and declined to share the upcoming year’s SmartSource insert publication schedule with Coupons in the News for the first time in nearly a decade.

It’s possible that a turnaround specialist focused on restoring a company to profitability might not be too fond of a legacy paper coupon business that doesn’t generate much revenue. So does the company’s decision to keep the 2021 SmartSource publication schedule tightly held, mean it’s going to be drastically different from previous years? The first inserts of the new year are due out this coming weekend. So we’ll begin to find out, soon enough.

4. Universal digital coupons

Paper coupons can be used just about anywhere you shop, but paper can be kind of a pain. Digital coupons are more portable and convenient, but generally can only be used at a specific store. So why can’t there be digital coupons that you can use anywhere you want to shop?

That’s what The Coupon Bureau wondered, so that’s what it’s working on.

The coupon industry-backed group has been working on the concept for years. And after much planning and testing, it finally introduced real universal digital coupons to real shoppers at a real store late this year, to see how it worked in real-world conditions.

“I purchased the item, I showed the clerk the barcode on my phone, she scanned it and it automatically was redeemed, like other digital coupons. And that was it!” explained a local coupon blogger who was invited to be among the first to redeem one of the new coupons.

The new coupons are portable, fraud-resistant and, The Coupon Bureau hopes, coming to a store near you in the year ahead.

3. Paper coupons: Alive but not well?

This was the year it seemed the entire coupon industry got into a spat about whether paper coupons’ days are numbered.

Steven Boal, the CEO of Coupons.com parent company Quotient Technology, has been saying for years that paper coupons are fast becoming passé. But his predictions got more audacious and more specific this year, as he predicted that “the printed coupon will be gone in 18 months.” That was back in July, so if you’re marking your calendar, we’re now down to 13 months and counting.

The Wall Street Journal ran with this prediction, in an article forebodingly headlined “Coupon-Clipping Fades Into History,” which didn’t sit well with some coupon industry groups. Inmar Intelligence pointed out that paper coupon use still surpasses digital coupon redemption. And the Association of Coupon Professionals and Coupon Information Corporation said that “yes, digital coupon promotion distribution and redemption is growing and some traditional paper coupon vehicles are declining,” but “all distribution vehicles have unique benefits.”

But Boal stuck to his guns, saying that “the world has shifted to digital media consumption” and it was only a matter of time before coupons did the same.

So when it comes to the question of whether paper coupons have a future, it depends whom you ask – and whom you believe.

2. Printable coupons: Alive but not well

There’s not as much debate when it comes to printable coupons. That’s because there’s no doubt about the fact that they’ve seen better days.

The website of the aforementioned RetailMeNot Everyday never offered very many print-at-home coupons. But shortly after the beginning of this year, it quit offering them altogether. SmartSource hasn’t offered very many either lately, and there’s no telling what the new owners’ plans are for its printable coupons.

But at least Coupons.com still has print-at-home coupons, right? Well, for now it does. When the Coupons.com app absorbed SavingStar’s offers, it also adopted SavingStar’s cash-back model, making most of its offers available as rebates after you upload a receipt. Printable coupons are still available, but they’re not exactly easy to find anymore. And they may fade even further into the background once the Coupons.com website also adopts the app’s look in the coming year.

Coupons.com built its business on print-at-home coupons. But with its boss increasingly promoting paperless offers, and its website and app emphasizing rebates, printing your own coupons may become even less prevalent in 2021, and beyond.

1. Covid changes everything

And what was the top story of the year? Is there some other major event that we haven’t fully addressed yet?

Oh yeah – that.

A whole lot about everyday life changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. And coupons did not escape unaffected. The first sign of trouble was when many stores reduced or suspended their regular weekly sales circulars, and coupons for high-demand items like paper products and cleaning supplies disappeared from slimmed-down Sunday coupon inserts.

BJ’s Wholesale Club raised greater concerns when it stopped accepting paper coupons altogether, which had couponers bracing for the possibility that other retailers would follow suit. Thankfully, except for a couple of grocery delivery services, no one did – and BJ’s rescinded its paper coupon ban a few months later.

And a facility in Mexico where coupons are collected and counted was briefly shut down as a result of the virus, raising the possibility that retailers would face delays in getting reimbursed for the coupons they accepted. But that was quickly resolved.

So, in a way, the coronavirus’ impact on coupons was not as bad as it could have been. If retailers couldn’t get reimbursed for their coupons, and more of them quit accepting paper coupons altogether, the whole coupon ecosystem as we know it could have become crippled. Instead, the most lasting impacts on couponers and grocery shoppers were toilet paper shortages, one-way aisles and paying full price for a lot more than deal-seekers were accustomed to.

Knowing that it could have been worse, is small comfort when faced with a pandemic that’s already proven itself to be devastating and deadly. But as we look ahead to 2021, we can at least reassure ourselves that, in many ways – there’s nowhere to go but up.

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And that’s 2020 for you! But it’s not a wrap just yet – watch for a special story tomorrow marking a noteworthy anniversary, and later in the week, a look ahead to the very first coupon inserts of the new year.

In the meantime, be sure you don’t miss any coupon news as it happens in the new year, by bookmarking this site, becoming a Facebook fan, following @couponinthenews on Twitter or subscribing to the daily emailed newsletter. And keep in touch with any comments, questions or tips by sending an email anytime.

Thank you for reading and here’s to a happier and healthier 2021!

Photo by rose3694

2 Comments

  1. Honest Couponer says:

    Thanks for the great perspective and your consistently fair and objective views of the coupon industry!

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