If a coupon policy changes and no one is told about it, does it save anyone any money?

No need to spend too much time pondering that philosophical question, because the word is out – Kroger is publicly confirming a notable coupon policy change that it actually made months ago. And the “digitally disconnected” who have become increasingly vocal over the past year, now stand to benefit – to an extent.

The country’s largest traditional grocery chain has officially formalized a once-informal policy of offering digital coupons and other digital-only discounts upon request, to shoppers without digital accounts or the means to download the offers. The change was quietly made earlier this year to the coupon policies posted on the websites of Kroger and all of its owned stores, with the exception of Harris Teeter. But apparently none of them ever mentioned it to anyone until this past week.

That’s when Kroger’s hometown TV news station WCPO in Cincinnati, Ohio did a story about digital coupons, and a Kroger spokesperson mentioned that “customers who would like to take advantage of digital coupons and do not have a digital account, can receive the discounted pricing at any customer service desk.” That news quickly spread, as older, lower-income and less-digitally-savvy shoppers learned that they will no longer be excluded from the savings that their more digitally-connected counterparts receive.


That was a key request from a coalition of consumer groups led by Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky, who wrote a letter to Kroger and eleven other grocery chains last year, urging them to “help remedy the discriminatory and exclusionary nature of digital-only offers” for the benefit of “the millions without internet access or a smartphone” who can’t take advantage of digital-only deals.

So you might think that Kroger would eagerly reply to the letter and show how responsive it is to its customers’ concerns by publicly proclaiming its commitment to inclusivity. Instead, the retailer seems to have simply tweaked its coupon policy and waited for digitally-disconnected shoppers – who by definition don’t have the ability to see the updated policy on Kroger’s website – to notice.

“Customers who choose to participate in the digital coupon program are required to have a digital account with a valid, active Plus Card,” the policy had stated as late as February of this year. “A valid Plus Card or an Alternate ID is required to access a digital account in order to use digital coupons at the time of purchase,” it went on. But by March, the policy had changed. It now says that “Shopper Card holders who do not have a digital account may receive the discounted pricing offered in a digital coupon or offer by speaking to an associate at any customer service desk. Customers will be required to show their Shopper’s Card or provide their Alternate ID.”

So you do still need to be a member of Kroger’s or your Kroger-owned store’s loyalty program. You just don’t have to clip the digital offers yourself anymore. That’s just what the consumer groups’ letter last year proposed, as it suggested several potential solutions to the digital divide, such as “empower customer service personnel to provide refunds for missing digital discounts,” or “empower cashiers to charge the digital price upon request.”

But will Kroger’s workaround really work? The policy as written, and Kroger’s public statement, doesn’t address whether shoppers need to visit customer service before going through checkout, or after they’ve already paid for their purchases. Kroger representatives have not responded to several requests for comment, though a customer service representative clarified that shoppers should visit customer service first, to get assistance loading digital discounts to their account before checking out.

Is it fair, though, to make digitally-disconnected shoppers wait in two lines to get access to advertised savings, while their ice cream melts? Will shoppers have to specify exactly which discount they want applied, or can they ask a customer service employee to apply all of the discounts for which they’re eligible? Will Kroger customer service employees dread this new time-consuming responsibility and rue the day this became official policy?

“This is certainly a step in the right direction for Kroger,” Dworsky told Coupons in the News. But it’s a needlessly complicated half measure, he believes. “Kroger and all its competitors would do well to adopt one of the two easiest in-store alternatives for the non-digital shopper: Simply allow the customer to request the digital discount at the checkout, or install a coupon kiosk where all a shopper has to do is scan their loyalty card or enter their phone number to automatically load all that week’s digital-only offers onto their account.”

Kroger hasn’t said what prompted its policy change. It could be seen as a concession to the digitally-disconnected, though it comes just as Kroger also decided to eliminate the distribution of printed sales circulars in most markets, which is precisely the opposite of a concession to the digitally-disconnected.

Regardless of its motivation, the apparently voluntary coupon policy change pre-empts any potential legislative effort that would require Kroger and others to address the digital divide. Until and unless its planned merger with Albertsons is approved, Kroger doesn’t currently have any stores in New York or New Jersey, where bills are pending that would require retailers to provide offline alternatives to digital-only discounts. But Kroger does have stores in Illinois, where similar legislation was proposed earlier this year. Of the three, the New Jersey bill has progressed the furthest on its way to potentially becoming law. It states that a retailer “that offers a digital coupon shall also make available to a consumer an in-store alternative that would allow the consumer to obtain the same product, service, or benefit at the same price, discount, or on the same terms as that provided by the digital coupon.”

It’s worth noting that, for years, many Kroger stores have actually, unofficially, offered the very customer courtesy that Kroger has now formalized. And many Kroger employees don’t particularly seem to like it. “If you make a big enough scene at the service desk, they’ll give you the digital price to shut you up and get you to leave,” one commenter wrote recently on a Kroger employee online message board. “I hate these coupons as an employee for these reasons.” Another complained it was “an absolute b**** to hold up the line and add together all their digital savings. Not to mention running around to check because they know it’s on sale but not for how much.”

A third commenter expressed little sympathy for those who can’t clip their own digital coupons. “Downloading digital coupons is no more difficult than cutting out paper coupons,” this employee wrote. “Imagine if, 25 years ago, a customer came in without a coupon, offering lame excuses like ‘I don’t get the Sunday paper’ or ‘I don’t believe in scissors’ while asking for the discount anyway. We would have laughed at them… We shouldn’t be coddling them.”

Many shoppers who are, in fact, digitally-engaged still complain that stores force them to jump through hoops just to get the advertised savings. While digitally-disconnected shoppers are no longer excluded from digital-only savings at Kroger, they’re having to jump through even more hoops to get the same savings as most other shoppers. So it could be that this policy change – together with the Kroger coupon policy’s gentle suggestion that in order “to receive the most comprehensive, personalized benefits from the digital coupon program, we encourage customers to sign up for a Shopper’s Card and create a digital account on our website or mobile app” – is all just a ploy to show how much easier it is to download your own digital discounts, as compared to asking customer service to do it for you every time.

Easier for some shoppers, perhaps. The rest, the consumers groups’ letter urged retailers, ought to have “equal access to your offers.” True “equality” may be in the eye of the beholder. But now, at least, for the digitally-disconnected Kroger shopper – it’s a start.

Image source: Kroger

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