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First on Coupons in the News:

There’s a very subtle change to the coupon policy on Target’s website that you probably haven’t even noticed yet. But Target hopes this small change will have a major impact in the battle against coupon fraud.

“Manufacturer coupons must scan at the register, which validates to a master file of valid coupons,” the policy now reads. “Coupons not on the master file are not accepted.”

So what is this “master file,” and what happens if you have a coupon that’s not part of it? In short, if you have a legitimate coupon that’s included in the master file of pre-verified offers, it should be accepted with no problem. If you have a legitimate coupon that’s not in the file, the register will flag it and it may now be subject to some additional scrutiny. And if you have an invalid or counterfeit coupon, it will be instantly rejected at the checkout.

You might think all of this was already happening. But the new policy actually represents a significant advancement in how Target’s registers verify whether a coupon is legit.

For many years, whenever a counterfeit coupon was detected, it was added to a list of known counterfeits – a “negative offer file” – so retailers would know to reject it. But a number of third-party providers are now compiling “positive offer files,” consisting of all known, legitimate coupon offers. Manufacturers contribute real-time information about all of their coupons that are currently in circulation, so if any coupon is scanned that’s not on their list, it will be rejected by any retailer that’s connected to that particular positive offer file.

But the system is only as good as its participants. There are several different positive offer file providers, not every retailer is connected to them, and not every manufacturer contributes to them.

Target, up until now, had only verified coupons from participating manufacturers against its positive offer file. Coupons from nonparticipating manufacturers were processed the old way – if the bar code worked, the register would accept it, and the coupon would be sent off to a clearinghouse for validation and reimbursement by the manufacturer, weeks or months later. If it was flagged as being invalid or counterfeit, reimbursement would be denied, Target would be on the hook for having accepted a fraudulent coupon, and the coupon user would, by that point, be long gone and will have gotten away with fraud.

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Not anymore. From now on, coupons from manufacturers that are not part of the positive offer file that Target consults will not be pushed through – they’ll be rejected by the register.

The goal, a Target spokesperson told Coupons in the News, is “to help provide our guests with access to the savings intended for them, ensure consistency for our team, and to work to reduce coupon fraud.” Over the past month, Target says it’s doubled the number of manufacturers contributing to the positive offer file, and has already seen “a 95% reduction of counterfeit coupon acceptance.” It’s now pushing for nonparticipating manufacturers to get on board.

Because if they don’t, their legitimate, valid, authentic coupons may be rejected as fraudulent.

Since the process is invisible to the consumer, there’s no way for the average shopper to know whether the coupon they’re using is from a manufacturer that’s contributing to the positive offer file. So the next time you go couponing at Target, you may be puzzled to find that the coupon you know is perfectly legitimate won’t go through.

One major manufacturer who’s not a positive offer file participant has not yet responded to a request for comment about whether they plan to get on board, or what they would say to their coupon-using customers who might get the side eye at Target for using a coupon that the register refuses to accept.

If that happens, Target says, all is not lost. “Not all manufacturers who issue coupons are on the master file of valid coupons,” Target acknowledged. “In these cases, when a coupon is denied, our team members will solve the experience for our guests by quickly reviewing the paper coupon to determine its accuracy and manually applying the coupon. If the team member remains unsure of a coupon’s accuracy, they can ask Assets Protection to review the transaction. It’s our goal to continue to put the guest experience first while continuing to reduce coupon fraud.”

So for now, “coupons not on the master file are not accepted” is less a nonnegotiable edict than it is an aspiration – and perhaps a warning. By implementing the new policy, Target has shifted the burden of proof to the manufacturers – verify that your coupons are valid by submitting them to the positive offer file, otherwise your customers are going to face some additional scrutiny when attempting to use your coupons. And that just might have the unintended effect of making those customers reconsider using a company’s coupons or buying its products again.

Unless, that is, the coupon policy change prompts 100% participation in the positive offer file. Then, only legitimate coupons will be accepted at Target, counterfeit coupons will no longer slip past cashiers – and this could become the rare coupon policy change where everybody wins.

Image source: Target

7 Comments

  1. We were at Target today and had two coupons refused, including one off a product we had previously bought in that same store. The cashier refused to apply the coupons manually and honestly acted like she had no idea about this new policy at all. So Target’s statement that employees will work with the customers to adjust the price for valid coupons after inspecting them is not what’s actually happening. It didn’t even seem like they had trained their employees on the change.

    • I had the same experience today. They looked at me like it was all hush hush and nobody wanted to explain why they could no longer take any of my manufacturers coupons from the Sunday paper. I wrote to corporate to complain. We’ll see if they respond..

  2. I was at a Target today where they were refusing all printed coupons, including those from product packages on their own shelves. Customer Service refused to allow them for myself and two other customers who were equally shocked and in line. I understand the need to clamp down on counterfeiting but I won’t be shopping there when I have coupons anymore.

  3. The new policy index targets coupon policy as a whole and Target is advertising in the paper alongside manufacturers add having a discount with a coupon now all the sudden coupons that did work, now don’t. That’s where Target is advertising almost on the same page as these coupons are printed in the paper seems a lot more like deceptive business practices to me and class action lawsuit from the people. False advertising shame shame. And then did your price adjustment making the discount a Target offer discount not a manufacturer’s value discount is modifying the price of the item for people in the wrong way and not taxing people property on their purchases. Causing Target to be guilty of tax fraud which they already are guilty of hush hush and is why they’re changing these policies that they don’t know anything about. More like their opinions are changing their policies without notifying the customers beforehand the people are going to start shopping at Walmart instead. It’s not a reduction of fraudulent coupon use they see, its a reduction in shopping at target

  4. I went to Target yesterday 10/4 – none of my manufacture coupons worked except for one (coupon not accepted at Target message flashed on self check out screen for every coupon). Now here is where it gets interesting – target clerk said no issue with coupons and did a price adjustment. When i got home found that for every item i had a coupon for (about 7) i was only charged the amount of the coupon! $42.99 bottle of Zyrtec for $10 (amount of coupon) and more. Part of me feels terrible as i don’t want the employee to get in trouble but other part of me really hates this new coupon policy (although i do understand it).

  5. Very well-written article, taking a highly technical solution and explaining it in layman’s terms. All brands should get on board with this and more retailers need to follow Target’s lead here!

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