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Monday, July 25, 2011

But Isn't That Like Stealing?

In the first post on this blog, I promised that nothing I taught here would be unethical. There are plenty of places on the web if you want to know how to cheat the system (any system really). This is not one of them.

But taking products from a store without paying for them is stealing. And I'm pretty sure that's a no-no.

Fortunately, that's not what we're talking about here. Just because you're not paying your money for the items you purchase, doesn't mean the store isn't getting paid.

Have you ever looked at the fine print on a coupon? Here's an example from a $5 off hair care coupon. I apologize for it being so small, but hopefully you can still read it. If not, here's what it says:
Consumer: Limit one coupon per purchase on specified product. You pay sales tax. Void where prohibited, produced or sold, altered or restricted. If submitted in compliance with our policy, available upon request, Kao Brands Company, CMS Dept. 19100, 1 Fawcett Drive, Del Rio, TX 78840, will reimburse the retailer face value plus 8¢.
Most coupons have similar wording. Recently there has been addition. Many coupons are also saying "Limit 4 like coupons per shopping trip."

So all of that sounds like a bunch of legalese, but the basic gist is that as long as you use this coupon within the parameters of the manufacturer's rules, the store still gets their $5, plus they get a small processing fee. And while 8¢ may not seem like much of an incentive to stores to mess with coupons, think about that 8¢ multiplied by the number of coupons being redeemed in each of their locations across a region or even nationwide.

So how do we stay within the rules?

The first thing to realize is that buying coupons from coupon clipping services is considered coupon fraud. Yes, it was a featured method on TLC's "Extreme Couponing" show. No, that does not make it ethical. If you look at that show closely, you'll find that there were several types of coupon fraud being committed. Clipping services were simply one of the most obvious.

The coupon says right on it that it is "void where…sold".

Another big thing that is taught on the internet is how to "decode" the bar code on your coupons so you can use them on other products. Yes, doing this might get you a better deal. No, that doesn't make it okay. It's still fraud and if the retailer gets caught taking the coupon this way they don't get paid, even though it was through no fault of their own.

It is important to read what the coupon actually says it is for. If you have a coupon for $1 off any two (2) 14 oz. or larger bottles of Kraft dressing, and the picture shows one Catalina, one Zesty Italian and one Balsamic Vinaigrette, that does not mean those are the only varieties you can use the coupon for. If there's a 14 oz. bottle of ranch at your store, that works too. However, you can not use it on a 12 oz. bottle of anything, or on some other Kraft product.

So what about where it says "Limit one coupon per purchase," but I said that I often buy more than one of an item? Isn't that against the rules?

No, it's not. If there is a coupon for $1 off 1 reach toothbrush, and the toothbrushes are on sale for 99¢, and I happened to buy three copies of the newspaper that week, you better believe I'll be taking home three of those toothbrushes. The key here is understanding the difference between a purchase and a transaction. When I get to the register and I place those three toothbrushes on the belt, those are three separate purchases. The three toothbrushes plus several other items I'm buying that day, which will all appear on the same receipt, are one transaction. That wording is there so you can't use two $1 off coupons on a $2 toothbrush and still get it free.

If your coupon includes the "Limit 4 like coupons…" wording, you can only use four of that specific coupon at a time, but if you have four of that coupon and one different coupon for the same product, you can use all five because that last one is not a like coupon.

Another thing that I've heard discussed is copying internet coupons. Some feel it's fine because they printed the coupon right from their own computer. This is still fraud. There is a reason the websites only will allow you to print two copies of most of these. You wouldn't copy a dollar bill and try to spend it, right? So don't copy a dollar coupon either.

So now we come to the less-well defined areas of coupon ethics. What about those things that are not technically fraud, but aren't very nice to do either?

We touched on this a little in the last post when talking about blinkies and peelies. My basic rule of thumb is not to do anything that I would be upset about others doing. For example, when I see a blinkie for one of my favorite products that makes that item free or super-cheap, I could grab 25 coupons and clear out all of the product on the shelf that day. However, if I was the next shopper down that aisle after someone had done so, I'd be a little ticked off.

In these situations, I will rarely buy more than three or four of the item in question on any given shopping trip. The exception is when the store has overstocked that item because of a good sale. If I see frozen veggies on a really good sale, and the regular shelf is full and there are more overflowing a separate showcase freezer, I may grab a dozen. But never when there are only a few left.

Like so many things in life, it all comes back to the golden rule. (That's the "do unto others…" one.)

I'm sure there will be other ethics questions that come up from time to time, and I'll address them as I hear about them. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment—I'd be happy to help!

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