“Do y’all know what the Clipper is?” Kimberly Pepper-Hoctor asked her class one recent night in a library meeting room about an hour south of Washington. A woman sitting near the front stirred her purse and extracted the latest edition of the Clipper, a direct-mail magazine loaded with coupons. She held it up for the 24 other mostly middle-age women who had come to learn as much as they could about paying as little as possible for their groceries and other household goods.
“I like you,” Pepper-Hoctor told her new teacher’s pet, who smiled broadly.
Pepper-Hoctor is a veteran bargain hunter who probably has enough severely discounted toiletries at home to stock your basic Presidential Emergency Operations Center. And she is a couponing instructor, a vocation born of the recession. The 42-year-old Navy wife, who tends to walk out of Target paying half of what the people behind her do for the same stuff, instructs women around Southern Maryland how they, too, can spend less to buy more.
She originally shared her secrets and strategies with other military spouses, but she has recently opened her Charlotte Hall classes to the public with a buy-none-get-one-free offer: Pepper-Hoctor doesn’t charge for the classes, which sets her apart from the burgeoning nationwide community of couponing experts.
“I’m trying to help people save money,” she said. “Why would I charge them?”
Driven by the obvious economic forces and celebrated on the cable show “Extreme Couponing” — in which scheming shoppers treat bargain-hunting as a competitive sport and often wind up with enough products to open their own surplus stores — coupon use has spiked over the past few years, with more people piling up more savings than ever.
In 2007, the year before the economy cratered, 63 percent of American shoppers used coupons “regularly,” according to NCH Marketing Services, a coupon clearinghouse. That year, $2.6 billion worth of manufacturers’ coupons were redeemed. In 2010, the numbers were up to 78 percent and $3.7 billion. This year, manufacturers have issued fewer coupons than during the same period last year, but redemption rates are rising, according to NCH.
With “couponing” popular enough that the verb has entered the mainstream lexicon, some women have been marketing their self-taught expertise in the art and science of saving: You can buy their instructional DVDs on supercouponing, and you can pay to attend their couponing seminars or book them for personalized classes. Increasingly these days, a penny saved is a penny learned.
More than 50 people have signed up for Pepper-Hoctor’s free class Aug. 15 in Leonardtown in St. Mary’s County. “I might have to add a second one,” she said.
Pepper-Hoctor was a couponer when couponing wasn’t cool, long before Groupon kick-started the Internet-based social coupon craze. She started clipping 30 years ago with her mother. She never stopped, even when she held a six-figure corporate communications job on the West Coast. (She doesn’t work at the moment because of health problems.)
“I don’t like paying full price,” she told the class. She is branding herself with a motto: The Girl Loves Coupons. Her standard lesson plan includes everything from a quick rundown of stores that double coupons to a long, involved explanation of “piggybacking,” in which combinations of store and manufacturer coupons are used to get the deepest possible discounts.
“We also call that ‘stacking,’ ” she said. The students were rapt. Some took notes.
“Let’s go to Walgreens,” Pepper-Hoctor said several hours before her class at the library in Charlotte Hall.
She aimed her sport-utility vehicle across the Patuxent River, through Solomons Island and into Lusby, to the nearest Walgreens. She was determined to redeem a rain check for Bounty paper towels, which had been marked down to $1.59. She had some $1 off coupons, but there was no Bounty to buy the last time she’d been to the store. She wanted that deal.
Of course, she had additional items on her shopping list, a multipage, color-coded spreadsheet created the previous Sunday, as always, after a trip to Panera with her husband, Navy Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Hoctor. They’d brought two copies of the Sunday Washington Post, and for the better part of two hours, while he read, she circled notable deals in the store ads and clipped coupons, which she organized in a red Mead binder divided by product type: paper products, skin care, hair care, eye care, dental, cleaning supplies, cereal, condiments, Mexican, beverages and so forth.
The spreadsheet organized products by store, with columns for price, size, extra incentives, restrictions and final price. The relevant coupons were eventually organized into envelopes, one for each store.
“I don’t want to fool anybody,” Pepper-Hoctor said. “The reality is that couponing is going to take some time. And then when you actually go shopping, it’s going to take more time. Finding the best price is like putting together a puzzle.”
She grabbed a cart and a Walgreens coupon booklet, opened her binder and aimed for the aisles.
“Let’s see what toothpaste is on sale here,” she chirped.
At the three-bedroom home Pepper-Hoctor shares with her husband and two dogs in a development seven miles from the naval air station, the storage closets and cabinets were packed. There were 20 boxes of tissue paper and too many containers of Febreeze and Softsoap to count. There were also surpluses of shaving cream, men’s deodorant, toilet paper and Ziploc bags.
“Kim is . . . prepared,” Thomas Hoctor said. He laughed. “But I can’t complain. I won’t ever say: ‘Oh, man, I have to go to the store to get shaving cream.’ All I have to do is go to the hall closet and get it. I joke to people when they stay with us: You’re getting your own roll of toilet paper, some deodorant, a box of Puffs and a personal tube of toothpaste. It’s like the Hoctor Inn.”
Before shopping, Pepper-Hoctor had looked at the explosion of toothpaste in a closet near her bedroom and guessed that there were 35 tubes. “We need to donate some,” she said. “But toothpaste is the easiest thing to get free. Most of it was either free or I paid 50 cents for it.”
Still, she said, at least there weren’t, say, 50 bottles of mustard in the house, a la “Extreme Couponing.” She has her limits. “Some of those people are borderline hoarders,” she said.
At Walgreens, Pepper-Hoctor picked up a six-ounce tube of Arm & Hammer toothpaste.
“It’s $3.99, and then ‘buy one get one free,’ and then I have two coupons for it at $1 apiece.” The regular price was $4.29 each; Pepper-Hoctor could buy four for $4.98.
She smiled. “I’m going to go ahead and get them. We don’t use these, but my mom does. I’ll send it to her.”
Into the basket and onward.
From aisle to aisle she went, picking up a couple of cheaper-than-usual bottles of vitamins, including Flintstones Gummies (“They’re pretty good,” she said), and three boxes of Old El Paso taco shells for 79 cents each (they’re usually $2.29) and a six-pack of Expo washable dry erase markers for $2.99 — $7 off the list price.
Up Aisle 10, over to five, through three, back to 10, over to seven, side trip to the clearance section on one, just in case there was a deal she couldn’t refuse.
She’d been in the store an hour. “This isn’t even a big shopping trip,” she said. “This is why my husband hates going shopping with me.”
A Walgreens clerk stocking mascara saw Pepper-Hoctor riffling through her coupon envelope.
“If you don’t want to plug it up,” she said of the main checkout line, “we can make it easier.” She told Pepper-Hoctor to come see her at the cash register near makeup when she was ready.
The order totaled $136.87, including more than $40 in store markdowns. “Now,” said the clerk, “let’s whittle it down.” She looked at the expiration date of each of the 24 coupons and checked to make sure she’d rung up the corresponding item.
The total shrank to $94.87. Pepper-Hoctor nodded. “I saved $86 — nearly half.”
She rolled the cart to the parking lot and loaded the SUV. It had been 90 minutes.
“Let’s go to Target next. I have a big shop to do there.”
The coupon was born in 1886, when John Pemberton handed out drink cards around Atlanta, offering free samples of his new creation, Coca-Cola. The promotional coupons took off when the Coke formula was sold to druggist Asa Candler, who direct-mailed coupons to customers who lived near soda fountains. The promotion seemed to work just fine for Coca-Cola and marketers.
Last year, more than 330 billion coupons were distributed in the United States — a record level, said Charlie Brown, an executive with NCH and co-chairman of the Promotion Marketing Association’s Coupon Council. Fewer are being offered this year, Brown said, but redemption volume is on the rise.
“We saw in our consumer research that in 2010, the No. 1 reason people said they were using more coupons was because they liked saving money,” Brown said. “That’s different than what we saw in 2009, when the top reason was they needed to stretch their budget. Once people started using coupons to a greater degree due to the recession, it became part of their shopping habits. There’s a sense of enjoyment when you get that feeling of being a smart, savvy shopper.”
The discount is only part of the calculus, said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavior economics at Duke University. “What’s interesting is that you have to do something to get the financial reward, so your skills are connected to it,” he said. “It makes you feel that you’re in control and are successful.”
On a more base level, Ariely said, saving money with coupons could be a dopamine trigger.
At Target, while zigzagging in search of the best deals on deodorant and Febreeze and makeup, Pepper-Hoctor had a revelation. It came as she realized she was getting a package of ballpoint pens for free.
“I do get a little bit of a high from saving money,” she said.
Jennifer Hunt, not long out of college, now working for the St. Mary’s County Department of Aging, was the youngest of 25 students in Pepper-Hoctor’s class in Charlotte Hall. She brought some coupons with her, as well as a receipt from a recent trip to Rite Aid.
“I got four things of Noxzema razors for free,” she boasted. In couponing circles, bargain-bragging is encouraged. Hunt sometimes posts her best deals on Facebook. “They’re like trophies,” she said.
Pepper-Hoctor urged her flock to manage its expectations. “Extreme Couponing” is an unrealistic reality show, she said. “You won’t always get free stuff.”
During the hour-long class, her tips came at a dizzying pace. Set up an e-mail address dedicated to couponing, “because you’re going to get spammed a lot.” Use Firefox instead of Internet Explorer to print online coupons. Get to know the managers at the stores where you do most of your shopping. Sign up for this, look up that, watch this video for extra coupons!
Then she gave away a binder just like the one she used for couponing, randomly drawing a student’s name.
“I picked it up at Target today,” she said, adding (even though it was self-evident): “I got a pretty good deal, with a coupon.”