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Are Couponites Exploiting A Barcode Loophole?

The television reality show, Extreme Couponing, which airs its second episode on TLC tonight, has shown the great lengths some ambitious coupon-clippers will go to for a bargain, knocking over 90% off a single grocery bill by hoarding hundreds of newspaper coupons and using store- and manufacturer-issued coupons. But it has also raised concerns among America’s coupon community about a barcode loophole that potentially allows customers to buy products at far bigger discounts not intended by manufacturers.

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Believe it or not, using a 50-cent coupon for a single 33-cent carton of yogurt, when it’s intended to be used for a multi-pack, would in theory result in “overage” or an actual profit for the customer. In a busy grocery store with long lines, this might go over the head of the cashier who is busily processing coupons on a large family shopping list. However, it hasn’t gone over the head of the industry: retailers and manufacturers began rolling out a new barcode system “GS1 Databar” last week.

The TLC channel says it is aware of the issue. Spokesman Dustin Smith tells Pay Dirt in a statement: “We have received a strong response to the premiere and are listening to and reading the various comments around the show.” He adds, “While the series documents extreme couponing strategies, we take any concerns about specific tactics seriously and are looking into the situation…The show documents couponers as they go after big savings. Any of the cast’s strategies are unique and their own to comment on.”

The loophole in question relates to the older “UPC” or the Universal Product Codes, those series of black lines and numbers on your coupon, and specifically the potential misuse of the “family code”, which the industry acknowledges has been used by at least some shoppers for other products by the same manufacturer. Although retailers and manufactures began rolling out a new barcode GS1 Databar last week, coupon expert Jill Cataldo says that many cash registers in smaller grocery stores are still set to the old UPC barcode.

However, Stephen Arens, director of industry engagement for New Jersey-based GS1US, a non-profit group originally established by the grocery industry that administers and develops barcode standards, says that most large grocery stores are up-to-speed on the technology. “One of the reasons the coupon industry wants to use to GS1 Databar for coupons is because it offers the retailers increased capability regarding validation, so the product on the coupon is the same as the product purchased,” he says. In other words, to prevent cheating.

Prominent couponers have waited for this moment. Teri Gault, founder of the Grocery Game, which matches supermarket sales with manufacturers’ coupons, welcomes GS1: “We advocate only proper, ethical usage of coupons.” Cataldo agrees, and tells Pay Dirt that she was originally approached by TLC but ultimately not chosen for the show. She says there are no sour grapes. “It’s very over-the-top. This isn’t something I would want to be attached to anyway. It doesn’t present the average coupon shopper in the best light.”

Have you ever been tempted to use a coupon for another non-designated product?

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About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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