GIANT FOODS has announced that it wants out of the discount coupon business. Giant says it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to distribute and redeem the coupons and that instead of being a great American way of beating the system, coupons actually cost consumers a fortune.
This is wonderful news. Coupons have driven me crazy for years. The whole idea behind the coupons is that the American housewife has so much time on her hands that she can earn some pin money by flipping through newspapers and women's magazines and clipping out pieces of paper that can be turned into real money with just a little more work. Somehow over the years, clipping coupons became something housewives simply did. It was a sign of good household management, of thrift.
And it was a manufacturer's delight. How else could they entice consumers into buying yet another new soap that does nothing more than get you clean? How else could they persuade us to try food-stretching products that are supposed to be loaded with nutrients but that taste like they're made from synthetics?
Not everyone is against coupons, of course. Some people have fond memories of their mothers clipping coupons. Others believe they can actually save money with them. I always thought coupons were probably a rip-off, nothing more than a way of luring me to a new product. If it's 10 cents off this week, it meant I'd be paying 10 cents more next week. But I, too, was raised in the belief that all good American housewives clip coupons and besides, in this economy, one grasps at straws. So, I tried to grasp coupons. Coupons could mean savings. For me, coupons meant guilt:
I'm convinced I've let a fortune in coupons slip through my hands.
I could never remember to cut them out.
When I did, I forgot to use them. They either stayed on my kitchen table or got lost in my purse, surfacing occasionally to remind me that my family's finances no doubt would be stable now if only I'd clipped coupons during these lean years.
Coupons used to be relatively easy to handle. But by the time I tried to get into coupons, unit pricing had arrived, adding a whole new dimension to the American way of beating the system. It also added a whole new sytle to the American way of shopping.
Grown people would march up to the liquid detergents, grab the household favorite and suddenly be paralyzed with indecision. They'd bend sideways, comparing unit prices on the various brands, then straighten up, scratching their heads, pondering the merits of the house brand versus the Nationally Adveritsed Products that happened to be on sale.
Finally, they would grab a big container of detergent, toss it into the shopping cart, take a step and freeze. Out would come the coupons, and there they would be, face to face with the new American dilemma: to clip and save or unit price?
There was a time when some people clipped and some people unit priced, but as the economy got worse, our defenses became more complex. We played every angle we could. People who used to merely clip coupons and stuff them in kitchen drawers, now filed them in portable boxes. They subscribed to coupon magazines and traded coupons with friends: "I'll give you one 25-cents-off-any-size Tide for one 25-cents-off-any-size-Woolite." People squinted at the expiration dates on coupons the way we used to squint at stock market listings in the papers. Unit pricers like me even started clipping coupons. I thought I could do both.
Not too long ago, I unit priced my way through the frozen fruit juices, then couponed past the milk and detergents, choked my way through the meats, skipped cheeses, plunged on eggs, unit priced on green beans, tomatoes, (paste, cooking and sauce) and couponed on brownie mixes, chocolate syrup, toothpaste, frozen pizza and baby shampoo and threw away the coupons for the catfood the cat refuses to eat.
This was no small purchase and I left Giant substantially poorer than when I went in . But it could have been worse. Just before the final tally, I handed the clerk my coupons. She took $2.50 off the bill. I felt terrific. I felt I'd finally beaten the system. Who else could make a killing on unit pricing and also earn $2.50 in coupons? All my additions and subtractions, all the divisions and multiplications done in my head and on the back of my grocery list had finally been worthwhile.
Then I saw the clock. After a mere two hours and 15 minutes, much of it spent pushing 50 or more pounds of groceries, I had saved the princely sum of $2.50 -- or put another way, I had done two hours of math and two hours of labor simultaneously for less than the minimum wage. Henceforth, I decided to stake our economic future on unit pricing and house brands.
Obviously, I'm not alone. Studies have shown that only 4 or 5 percent of the coupons distributed are ever redeemed, which suggests, among other things, that those of us that don't save coupons have been subsidizing those that do. It also suggests that American housewives -- when they aren't glued to the soaps -- may have found something else to do besides hunt coupons.
Giant is probably going to get a lot of heat from manufacturers, and consumers are going to suspect that abandoning coupons is just another sneaky way of making money.Giant and Safeway have both discontinued their 30-cent coupons on milk, which is the only one I could ever remember to tear out. The upshot of their move so far, is that they've sneaked their milk prices from $2.09 a gallon down to $1.89 a gallon. It's not a 30-cent difference, but it's a good step in the direction of taking away coupons and lowering prices. And that, I submit, is the way to go.
It could make shopping simple again, and take away the uneasy feeling a lot of us have had, that whether we used coupons or not, we were getting clipped.