I am terrible at clipping coupons -- I often dismiss them as not worth my time, and if I happen to clip one out, I usually forget I even have it. Recently I found a coupon on my refrigerator that expired in May 2001 (in my defense, it was buried under child artwork).
But as bad as I am at coupons, I'd never even attempted to get a rebate, a marketing gimmick that always seemed to take the inconvenience factor of a coupon to a new level. Last fall, though, I tried for the first time, submitting a $10 rebate request to the Rite Aid drugstore chain for an already inexpensive cordless telephone.
That was in November, and I still haven't gotten my money (more on that later). But the wait has certainly fed my curiosity about these kinds of promotions. Do they really work? Or, perhaps the better question might be, how often do they work?
As it turns out, there are plenty of people who "rebate" regularly, as they say, who insist rebates can be a great deal. There are even Web sites devoted to the sharing of rebates and other discount offers, like FatWallet.com and RefundleBundle.com. On these sites, people reveal rebate and discount offers they've found and come up with ways to "stack" different offers together to get the absolute lowest possible price -- the Holy Grail, of course, being products that end up free.
What people who frequent these sites understand, and accept, is that rebates, at their core, are a hassle.
Getting your $1, $3, $10 or even $150 back requires doing something, usually sending in a receipt and/or a proof of purchase. It also requires patience, because it typically takes up to six weeks to get your money back.
But the work, argue some consumers, is worth it. "What you get back from a rebate is much better than what you're going to get back from a coupon," said Susan Samtur, founder of the Refundle Bundle magazine and Web site. "It's where you get your real bang for the buck."
A conversation with Samtur would make even the most cost-conscious consumer feel like a spendthrift. She researches, organizes, stacks and catalogues her deals like a pro, and her industry knowledge is backed up by her own real-world examples -- such as the Glade candles she recently bought on sale, two for $3. She then had coupons for 50 cents off each candle and a dollar rebate on each one, reducing the cost to zero.
I could no sooner keep track of such multiple offers than make those candles myself. But some consumers who make a hobby out of finding good deals can easily overlook the hurdles. And the effort that rebates require is actually attractive to some shoppers.
"People typically like it because now they're involved in the process," said Tom Holliday, president of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association (RAMA). "Here's something I'm given, but I have to do something to get it. The process becomes kind of fulfilling."
For others, though, that process is more frustrating than fulfilling -- and frankly, these are the customers whom retailers and manufacturers really like. It's the shoppers who buy a product precisely because it does have a rebate, but then never get around to sending away for it, who make the system work so well.
About 15 percent of all rebates are not redeemed, giving the issuer of the rebate a financial cushion while still boosting sales. "They hate people like me," admits Samtur of Refundle Bundle.
That helps to explain why more retailers are joining manufacturers these days and issuing rebates. Not only can chains be assured that a certain percentage of consumers will simply forget to submit the rebate or do it wrong, they can also create more sophisticated systems that bring the rebate dollars back into the store.
Staples, for example, now issues rebates with gift checks to spend at . . . Staples, and a growing number of retailers are doing likewise. Rechargeable gift cards are also being used more frequently to give consumers their rebates.
"It's the trend to do more creative [promotions] rather than just giving away margin in lower prices -- that's a downward spiral," said Holliday of RAMA. "You're giving a $10 gift card, and you'll get your full margin on that -- the retailer will make a profit on that."
In other words, retailers have found a way to shift part of what was once exclusively a shopper's benefit back to the retailer.
What's unclear is how far this effort goes. Ellen Moore of the retail consulting firm Carton Donofrio Partners in Baltimore, who works on improving customer experiences, says rebates could use some serious improvement. The hassles with most programs are so great, she says, she wonders sometimes if they're deliberate. What makes her especially suspicious is how often consumers don't get rebates they've filed for, or don't get them in the time frame specified.
"If you're not a proactive consumer, these things can just fall through the cracks," she said. Even if it's just sloppiness and not deliberate deception, she said, "it's certainly a way the manufacturer wins."
Moore speaks on this issue in large part as an avid "rebater" herself. She and her husband file for rebates frequently and keep organized records of what they've filed and when money should be coming in. Thirty to 40 percent of the time, she says, the six weeks pass and they don't get their money, necessitating follow-up phone calls.
"I'd say four out of five times they say the check's just been mailed," Moore said. "It makes me just wonder if, when somebody calls, that's when they release the money."
There are some legitimate reasons it takes so long to get money from a rebate. First, rebate programs are handled by giant central processing centers, not by the particular retailers or manufacturers offering the rebates. And second, the check or gift card is often sent to the consumer through the less expensive, and much slower, bulk mail system.
But in the case of my Rite Aid rebate, five months was awfully long to wait. So I just phoned Rite Aid to find out what happened. I found my receipt and gave the agent at the call center my name, Zip code and transaction number. She pulled up my file.
"That transaction was denied," she said flatly.
I felt like I was talking to an HMO. The woman couldn't tell me why my request was denied, but said I could fax my receipt and they would investigate. If the claim wasn't denied a second time, I would get a check. Would someone call me to tell me, I asked?
"No, you can call back in seven to 10 days," she said.
I faxed my receipt to the Texas phone number she gave me and I've marked on my calendar when to call back. I've already spent more than $10 worth of time just trying to find my receipt, but it's not about the money anymore, it's the principle.
I'll get my $10, I'm sure. But next time, I won't be buying anything just for a rebate.
If you have a question, comment or concern about what you see when you shop, write to Margaret Pressler at firstname.lastname@example.org.