Like many viewers, I am hooked on the TLC show, ‘Extreme Couponing.’ Part of the appeal is seeing average consumers save hundreds of dollars at the grocery store. However, when I watch the show, I am torn. One part of me admires the couponers’ shopping savvy; the other part of me knows that no one needs 100 bottles of mustard or hot sauce. There seems to be an element of greed and gluttony that does not sit well with me. Sure, some of the “stars” donate their bounty to food banks and charities. Yet, others keep a stockpile under their children’s beds and in nearly every available crevice. Just as I am grappling with the moral issues of stockpiling and clearing shelves of sale items, I learned that one of the show’s couponers allegedly cheated.
According to Smartmoney.com, J’aime Kirlew appears to have fraudulently bought items that did not match her coupons. Eagle-eyed viewers spotted that Ms. Kirlew’s shopping list was organized by manufacturer and barcode and not by item. The way this works is that the shopper matches the coupon barcode to a different item and not the item the coupon is actually supposed to buy. For example, a coupon for toilet paper could be used to buy toothpaste if the barcode and manufacturer are the same. This is significant because the couponer can use a high value coupon on less expensive products.
Jill Cataldo, a coupon expert, discusses the controversy on her website, JillCataldo.com. The controversy has jarred the couponing community. Couponers fear that it will be a reflection on them. In fact, coupon changes are in the works. In a follow-up article, Ms. Cataldo writes about how retailers are making major changes due to ‘Extreme Couponing.’ Coupon manufacturers have made it clear that using a coupon for a different item than intended is fraud, and the coupon barcode will be changed to avoid misuse.
Grocery stores are also fighting back. The main issue is that on the show, you see these expert couponers clearing the shelves of sale items. Some buy 100 or more sale items and use a coupon on each item. Others buy sale items and then use a coupon in order to get a credit balance. This way, the store owes them money. They then use that credit balance to purchase other items, such as meat, or to receive store credit. Obviously, this tactic is very profitable for the couponers.
Now, many stores are limiting the amount of sale items you can purchase. They also limit the amount of coupons you can use per shopping order. For example, many stores in big cities, such as New York, do not double coupons or if they do, the amount is limited to a dollar off maximum. Additionally, the coupon will only double up to the value of the item, so you cannot get money or credit back on your shopping order.
‘Extreme Couponing’ is having another unforeseen effect. Consumers, such as my neighbor Mrs. Smith–a frequent grocery store shopper–say that since the show, their coupon inserts are missing from their newspapers and weekly flyers. Mrs. Smith says, “This show has made it impossible for us to get our coupons in the newspaper because someone removes them before selling the newspaper. Someone is stealing the coupons.” She believes that the popularity of the show has resulted in this “coupon craze.”
I do not know if TLC knew that ‘Extreme Couponing’ would be such a hit or could have predicted the implications this show would have on consumers and retailers. As my neighbor said, “Now, everyone is coupon crazy.”