I thought it would be interesting to take up the challenge of one of my readers and write a response to the proposal that using coupons and store rewards programs to get as many products for free as possible, could be considered "a legal form of shoplifting".
Shoplifting is commonly defined as theft or the wrongful taking and carrying away of the goods or property of others. Coupons are almost always issued with usage guidelines for both the consumer who will use them and the retailer who will receive them. By definition, as long as these guidelines are adhered to and not exploited, it is impossible for theft to take place.
Coupons are marketing tools and issued as incentives to encourage certain activities. They are part of a carefully planned and calculated marketing strategy and in most case their campaigns are backed by specific insurance policies to prevent the issuer from financial damage as a result of mistakes in their planning or marketing. Coupons can be used to encourage brand loyalty, to increase public awareness of a new product, to encourage or recapture market share for a particular store or as a marketing device for clearing out a discontinued product or packaging style in a quick and cost effective fashion.
The reason why a coupon has been issued is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion but what is important is the fact that someone has published it for a specific purpose and attached to that purpose is a specific and calculated cost. The marketing purpose may or may not succeed and the calculated costs may fall below the predicted costs but the one certainty is that the discounted value of the goods attached to the coupon will never exceed the total number of coupons released. It doesn’t matter whether I choose to use one ‘50% off Cheetos’ coupon or 200, the issuer suffers no uncalculated financial loss.
Like issuers, providing the usage guidelines for the coupon are adhered to, retailers by definition cannot be stolen from. In fact, the usage of coupons is a fantastic way of encouraging custom and introducing new or underexposed products to the market and therefore encouraging people to walk through their doors. Retailers are directly reimbursed by the coupon issuer for the coupons that they take and in most cases are credited an additional 8 cents per coupon to mitigate against the retailers administrative overheads. If they keep to the rules, they cannot lose. In my experience however retailers are often poorly educated about how to use coupons and the guidelines that they must meet in order for them to be reimbursed. A great example of this would be the blood glucose meters I purchased form Walgreens this weekend.
From what I have read, in order for the retailer to be reimbursed the amount specified by the coupon, the retailer should have recorded the serial number of each product on the coupon at the time of purchase. Without meeting this requirement, it is unlikely the manufacturer will honor the refund. In the case of this weekend, of the 23 monitors that I purchased, only two had their serial numbers recorded.
Do I feel bad that Walgreens has probably just missed out on around $1000? Absolutely not. I am in no way responsible for any training or communication issues that they have. In actual fact, as a responsible couponer, I spend a significant amount of time in cashier’s lines helping them to understand the rules attached to coupons and helping them not to make mistakes by denying my perfectly legal transactions.
In some cases, a retailer makes a conscious decision to deviate from the coupon handling guidelines; a classic example of this being the ‘one coupon per transaction’ or ‘one coupon per visit’ disclaimers. In the event that I have used multiple coupons of this type, I have done so with the full intention of purchasing each item separately and re-queuing at the cashier each time. If the retailer enforces this guideline then that is their prerogative and I am prepared to abide by it. Luckily, and often in the sake of common sense, most of the retailers I use are prepared to exercise common sense and will allow me to carry out multiple transactions at once. Multiple visits to the register means more of their time and resources used and ultimately a reduction in the profit they are making.
So in conclusion, in the cases where coupons are used legally, I find it hard to support the opinion that their use could be considered a legal form of shoplifting. Whether I am using a single coupon or twenty, the fact that my family and I are benefiting from the planning and research I have done means that I have ‘played the game well’. If you opened up your newspaper on a Sunday morning and a hundred dollar bill fell out, would you take them to the bank? Of course you would! Coupons and deals are just like free money – It just takes a little more effort to use them properly!
*I would like to open this discussion up to my readers. Please keep to the topic and remain constructive.*