With frozen dinners, party balloons, shampoo and more priced at $1, the dollar store can seem like a great place for bargains. But that’s not quite true — and savvy shoppers are catching on.
Cash-strapped consumers have flocked to dollar stores — many of which defy their names by selling higher-priced items — since the recession hit, but now those stores are starting to see a slowdown, reports The Wall Street Journal. Several of the big chains said in quarterly earnings reports that they failed to meet expectations because customers are buying more low-profit items like food and cleaning supplies, and fewer high-profit ones such as clothes and home goods.
But coupon experts suspect at least part of the shift can be explained by the so-called “extreme couponing” trend that teaches shoppers to stack stores sales, coupons and other discounts to pay just pennies on the dollar for their purchases. “People are getting smarter,” says Teri Gault, founder of The Grocery Game. “Sales with coupons will almost always beat prices at dollar stores.” A shopper could get a 12-count box of Nature’s Valley granola bars for $0.79 at the grocery store with a sale and coupon, for example. On a per-bar cost, that’s 80% less than the dollar store price of $1 for a pack of four.
Companies are cracking down on extreme couponing techniques that allow shoppers to leave with baskets full of free items.
Rite Aid, Target and Publix have all revised coupon policies in recent weeks (see details below) to limit the number of store and manufacturers’ coupons they accept per item or per shopping trip. Procter & Gamble now limits consumers to four of the same coupon per shopping trip, a recommendation that industry group Coupon Information Corporation is preparing to add to its best-practices page for companies issuing manufacturers coupons. Stores are also moving to a more sophisticated barcode system to prevent shoppers from using coupons meant for other items.
“It’s unfortunate that there have to be limits like this, but I think you’re going to see the whole industry moving this way,” says Bud Miller, the executive director of the Coupon Information Corporation. Previously, lenient policies let savvy shoppers stack multiple coupons and stockpile big quantities for pennies on the dollar. “These shoppers come in and clear out every last item, and there’s nothing left for the other consumers,” he says. “That’s not what coupons are for, and hopefully these new policies will help prevent some of that abuse.”
Apples just became public enemy No. 1 to shoppers looking for pesticide-free foods.
A recent screening from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found pesticide residue in 98% of the popular fruit, the highest rate of all the produce it examined. That was enough to push apples to the top of the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” shopping guide of items to buy organic. The free list, released today, aims to help shoppers on a budget figure out which items are best purchased organic. Last year, apples ranked fourth.
“Consumers should shop with an abundance of caution,” says Mark Kastel, the co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group. Although all of the foods screened meet government guidelines for acceptable pesticide levels, he says, studies have pointed to problems stemming from even minute levels of exposure.
Although buying organic may be desirable, it’s not always in the budget. At online grocer FreshDirect.com, regular strawberries — which placed third on the Dirty Dozen — are half the price of organic ones, while a half-gallon of organic milk at Safeway sells for a 27% premium.
But there are ways to make going organic more affordable. Try these five:
Talking Shop: Remember J’aime Kirlew? She appeared on the first episode of TLC’s 12-part series Extreme Couponing and cut nearly $14,000 off her grocery bill last year by clipping coupons. She stockpiled over 100 cleaning wipes, 450 rolls of toilet paper and 250 paper towels at her Montgomery Village, Md., home.
Last month, Pay Dirt spoke to Kirlew about the show in an interview entitled, “Confessions of an Extreme Couponer.” It turned out to be a portentous headline. Her TV appearance was followed by allegations of fraudulent coupon use online and in magazines and newspapers, a practice where a shopper can use one coupon on another product that matches the barcode, but not the product specified on the coupon.
Bud Miller, the executive director, of the Alexandria, Va.-based Coupon Information Corporation, which represents the manufacturers of coupons issued in the U.S., says it’s not a gray area: “Coupons are a contract and the controlling barcodes are merely a method of processing coupons, so any use of a coupon to produce a product other than stated in the plain language of the coupon is considered fraudulent.”
Manufacturers are now changing their barcode system to prevent coupons being used for other products that work with the same barcode. But Kirlew says she has done nothing wrong and will continue to match coupon codes until the barcode system changes.
Pay Dirt spoke exclusively to Kirlew.
Sharing has its benefits: helping others, fostering cooperation and conserving resources. But it can also cut your bill at checkout, as manufacturers and retailers start issuing new coupons that increase in value when you pass them along to other people.
For example, a $1.50 Huggies coupon suddenly becomes a $3 one when you agree to email or instant-message it to three people, or post the link to Facebook, Twitter or MySpace. On deal site PeopleDeals, currently in beta, New Yorkers can grab a $1 coupon toward lunch at local restaurant L’asso, which mushrooms to $2, $3 or $4 when you post a link on Facebook and other friends nearby use the link to get their own copy.
The idea is a riff on what daily-deal sites like Groupon promise: get enough people interested in an offer, and you’ll secure a better price. While these social coupons haven’t yet taken off like daily-deal sites – coupon management firm Inmar, which tracks the industry, says it is aware of a handful, but the trend wasn’t significant enough last year to track amid the 3.3 billion offers consumers redeemed – experts are expecting them to gain popularity.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @SMPayDirt.