Most Americans are crazy about coupons. They clip coupons from every newspaper and magazine they come across. They check popular couponing websites like The Krazy Coupon Lady, Coupons.com, and RetailMeNot and scan emailed offers from Groupon and LivingSocial every day. Each time they visit a grocery store or an online retailer, they are armed with a sheaf of coupons or a list of promo codes. Within the store, they look out for in-store coupons like hawks. Estimates of coupon crazy shoppers vary depending on who you ask and how you define them, but all estimates are rather ginormous numbers: anywhere between 40% and 80% of all Americans use coupons regularly.
At the first blush, regular coupon use appears to be the hallmark of frugal and prudent shopping behavior. After all, by its very nature, someone using a coupon gets to buy the item for a lower price than someone who doesn’t use a coupon.
But are regular coupon users really prudent shoppers, and do they get the most bang for their shopping bucks?
Surprisingly, a quarter century worth of research by consumer psychologists suggests that the answer is a resounding “NO”! Even though regular coupon use creates the appearance of prudence, when shopping, its problems boil down to four main factors:
Marketers continue to give out so many coupons --- 305 billion in 2012 alone, according to one estimate --- only because they increase revenues and profits. However, for consumers, whether they are shopping for groceries every week or for unique items like a refrigerator or golf clubs once in a blue moon, finding and using coupons might not necessarily lead to the most prudent shopping behavior or saving the most money. The bottom-line is that using coupons pushes consumers to pull the trigger and make purchases even when the correct (and prudent) choice would be to postpone buying to another occasion or not buy anything at all. Coupons cannot be used by shoppers who abstain.
For many coupon crazy shoppers, giving up the couponing habit, or at least cutting down on it, may actually be the easiest and quickest way to get more value out of their shopping dollars, and to save time and money.
If you found this post to be interesting you might want to know: Do shoppers benefit from buying with subscriptions?
More About Me
You can find and download a lot of my academic and some of my practitioner-oriented writing at SSRN. If you can’t find something old I have written, shoot me an email and I will send it to you.
Some of my writing for managers and business people can be found at HBR.org and I also write a relatively new blog called “The Science behind Behavior” on Psychology Today.