Coupon Cheaters on "Extreme Couponing"

It's the show I love to hate! I watched several episodes this weekend with some friends. We marveled at families who could buy (e.g.) 62 bottles of French's mustard with a straight face. Later that weekend, a series of clicks led me to a thorough dissection of one particular episode, in which the blogger makes a pretty clear-cut case that at least one of the couponers is committing fraud.

Odder still, she has apparently been pretty open about her tactics, both to the show, and to the manager of the grocery store where she checked out. For his part, the grocery store manager was apparently very "shrug" about the whole thing. He figured if the coupons scanned, he would get reimbursed for them. Plus having the show film in his store was good advertising.

Ever wondered where coupon money comes from? Grocery stores periodically batch up all their coupons and send them off to the manufacturer. Let's say you get a coupon for 50 cents off a General Mills cereal. You buy the cereal, and the grocery store cuts 50 cents off your bill. Then the store mails that coupon to General Mills. And finally, General Mills sends the grocery store 50 cents, thus completing the circuit.

In some stores' systems, there is a loophole that has to do with UPC codes and coupons. I'll be honest with you, I don't fully understand how it works. But it essentially allows a savvy (and somewhat amoral) couponer to use a coupon for any item within that product's family.

UPC codes group items by family. Imagine your area code: everyone has a unique phone number, but they all share the same area code. UPC codes work kind of the same way, where the first few digits will be the same, and the last digits will specify the exact product.

For some reason, a lot of stores have a flaw in their system that only picks up the common number - the equivalent to an area code - when the checker scans a coupon. Imagine being able to use the same area code for two different people! It's that big a flaw in the system, and it's why an increasing number of coupons have the newer square QR code printed on them. These codes cannot be gamed the way a bar code can.

Manufacturers issue high-value coupons for high-value items. They may give you 50 cents off a cheap item (Crest Super Bargain Toothpaste, $.98 per tube), but a dollar off a more expensive item (Crest Ultra Glisten Tooth Maintenance System Now With Sparkle Crystals, $8.99 per tube). So what you do is, you take that $1 coupon for Ultra Glisten, but you use it on Super Bargain instead. The coupon is specifically for Ultra Glisten, but the register is too stupid to know the difference. Presto, you just got a tube of Super Bargain for free.

But what happens when the store manager submits that Ultra Glisten coupon? Manufacturers are aware of this problem, and they have started scrutinizing store submissions much more closely. If the manufacturer denies the coupon, the store just lost $1. And where are they going to make it up? With higher prices. For everyone.

Using coupons is awesome… when you use them correctly!

Photo credit: Flickr/Laura Mary


I haven't actually watched this show...I love my coupons, they only save me about $10 at a time but every bit counts...I don't know what the need for 70 bottles of mustard is though!