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A first-of-its-kind proposal aimed at addressing discriminatory digital discounts has failed to become law, leaving several similar measures – including yet another introduced just yesterday – vying for the chance to become the first in the country to legislate the form in which coupons can be offered.

New Jersey state lawmakers passed dozens of bills on the last full day of their legislative session Monday, sending them to the governor’s desk for his potential signature. Not among them, however, was a measure that would require anyone offering a digital coupon to make available an “in-store alternative of identical value.” That bill, which inspired several others in other states, came closest of all of them to becoming law, when it advanced out of an Assembly committee late last year. But it was not put before the full legislature for an up-or-down vote before the two-year session ended and the new session began the next day.

The start of a new session clears the decks, all previous bills that failed to become law are considered dead, and anyone wanting to revive a previous proposal would have to start from scratch, introducing a new bill and holding committee hearings all over again.

Democratic state Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, who was sworn in this week as a state Senator, introduced the measure around this time last year. As originally written, his bill would have required anyone offering a digital coupon “to also make available to a consumer a paper coupon of identical value.”

The goal was to make sure that lower-income, elderly or other shoppers who lack digital access or know-how are not shut out from discounts that are increasingly available only in digital form, particularly in grocery stores, where weekly specials are often widely advertised but are only available to shoppers who go online to download digital offers before they shop.

“People are being marginalized who aren’t amongst the majority of people that have access to the internet, computers and smartphones,” Moriarty told Coupons in the News at the time. “I think it’s unfair, I think it’s discriminatory, and I think the people that need the discounts the most are being shut out from being able to access them.”

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The bill’s wording changed as it made its way through committee and various retail groups weighed in. The bill that was up for a potential floor vote did away with the requirement for a “paper coupon” equivalent to digital offers, instead calling for “an alternative method at the store location, including, but not limited to, paper coupons, electronic kiosks, or application of the discounted price or benefit at the point-of-sale upon the request of the consumer.”

But many grocery stores – including ShopRite, ACME and Stop & Shop, the three largest grocery chains in New Jersey – already have, or have since begun to offer, some of the very in-store alternatives as called for in the bill. So that may have blunted the bill’s momentum, as legislation to require something that’s already being done may not have seemed so urgent anymore.

Many other grocery stores in other states, however, don’t currently offer in-store alternatives to digital-only discounts. And some of those states are still considering bills of their own to address the issue, as their two-year legislative sessions – unlike New Jersey’s – extend into next year. Rhode Island has now become the fifth state to take up the issue, as two lawmakers there introduced a bill yesterday, nearly identical in wording to New Jersey’s original version. New York’s version of the bill, introduced last year, was reassigned to a state Assembly committee just last week. There’s been no movement on a similar bill in Illinois for quite some time, though it remains alive. And a joint House-Senate committee is currently considering a bill in Massachusetts, which would go even further than the others in requiring that all digital coupon discounts be granted automatically for loyalty program members and senior citizens.

All of the bills’ sponsors aim to level the playing field by ensuring the digitally-disconnected have access to the same discounts as the digitally-savvy. At the New Jersey bill’s final committee hearing last month, a representative of one retail group acknowledged that unequal access to digital discounts is a concern, but suggested that lawmakers’ attempts to regulate digital coupons isn’t getting at the root of the problem.

“The inability to access online coupons is a symptom of a much larger issue, which is a lack of digital access,” Michael DeLoreto, legal representative for the New Jersey Food Council, told the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee in December. The bill under consideration at the time “is not looking to solve that major problem,” he said. “So if we’re looking at a matter of fairness, we should be asking ourselves whether or not it’s fair that somebody has access to the internet when somebody else doesn’t, in a world where everything is reliant upon technology.”

Other lawmakers may decide to look into expanding digital access as a solution to the inequity of digital-only discounts. But for now, several states – as well as a member of Congress – are still looking at the possibility of regulating the digital discounts themselves. So New Jersey’s bill may be dead – but the debate over the fairness of digital-only deals remains very much alive.

Image source: Stop & Shop

One Comment

  1. I completely agree with the author’s assessment of the recent coupon bill failure. As a consumer, I value the ability to use coupons to save money and feel that it is unfair to restrict their use based on digital platforms. It’s important to level the playing field and ensure that all consumers have equal access to savings opportunities, regardless of how they choose to engage with retailers. I hope lawmakers will take note of this and work towards finding a solution that benefits everyone involved.

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