The Washington area's retail food giant -- Giant Food, Inc. -- has declared holy war against discount coupons. The city's right-thinking realists have allied themselves with Giant in this crusade for economic justice.

From where I sit, it's a phony crusade. The fact that manufacturers and retailers offer more than 80 billion coupons each year is eloquent testimony to their effectiveness as marketing tools. It is folly to suggest that a single regional grocery chain sitting in the catbird seat -- so dominant in its market that it has little to gain from coupons -- can eliminate coupons from the American scene. Nor should this war be won. Coupons are -- or could be -- a miniature bonanza for those who desperately need relief from inflation in the grocery store.

Raised to believe that "good American housewives clip coupons," Post columnist Judy Mann was for years a renegade non-clipper. Finally, overwhelmed with "guilt," she took to trudging down supermarket aisles armed with those resented but magic slips of negotiable currency.

To her bemused irritation, Mann's conversion to couponing coincided with the advent of another arcane art -- unit pricing. She recalls a recent supermarketing odyssey: "I unit priced my way through the frozen fruit juices, then couponed past the milk and detergents . . . unit priced on green beans, tomatoes (paste, cooking and sauce), and couponed on browie mixes, chocolate syrup, toothpaste, frozen pizza and baby shampoo . . . I handed the clerk my coupons. She took $2.50 off the bill. I felt terrific . . . Then I saw the clock . . . I had done two hours of math and two hours of labor simultaneously for less than the minimum wage . . . I decided to stake our economic future on unit pricing and house brands."

Coupons undoubtedly complicate life; there's no question that those who don't redeem coupons subsidize those who do. (For example, after Giant ended its 30-cent milk coupon, the price fell 20 cents a gallon, to $1.89. Customers who had paid $2.09 subsidized who had paid $1.79).

Coupons are a sort of new-and-improved Robin Hood: those for whom saving a few bucks at the checkout counter is worth hours of effort will benefit at the direct expense of those who are unwilling to work for "less than the minimum wage."

Coupons are thus a rare and magnificent bird: a welfare program that redistributes wealth without any governmental involvement -- without any bureaucracy, or triplicate forms or waste. Coupons steal from no one; by deciding that they can afford to ignore coupons, the "rich" choose to pass along a tiny fraction of their wealth.

Another Post columnist, Bill Gold, argues against coupons on purely economic grounds: "I have opposed merchandising gimmicks for decades," he writes. "There's no such thing as a free lunch. Somewhere down the line, the public pays for everything it is offered 'free.'"

But "the public" doesn't pay the freight for coupon "freebies"; those who don't redeem coupons pay. Gold also rejects the industry's argument that coupons boost a product's sales, thereby creating economies of scale that hold prices down: "[T]he public pays more because of these so-called gifts than it would otherwise pay if manufacturers and merchants just cut out the baloney and competed . . . on the basis of quality, service, convenience and price."

The usual grocery-store product, however, must compete with many other products of barely different size, function, convenience, effectiveness and cost. And consumers tend to stick with one brand unless they're given a good reason to switch. Thus, a manufacturer must resort to "gimmicks" if his product is to capture and hold a significant market share. t

As far as I'm concerned, for example, all laundry detergents are created equal. Quality claims won't sway me -- I've heard them all before. But offer me a sufficiently valuable coupon, and I'll bite. And if I discover that one detergent really is superior, I'll keep buying it. If not, the next time out I'll buy whichever brand is cheapest that day (with or without coupon).

If we are to condemn coupons, we should condemn virtually all advertising. The coupon is nothing more than a special form of ad, a form whose purpose is precisely the same as that of the no-coupon ad: to attract and retain customers. I don't know anyone -- especially in the newspaper business -- who's willing to eliminate advertising.

Giant argues that the "Robin Hood" analogy is all wet: the poor, says Giant, do not buy the newspapers and magazines in which coupons appear. I'll concede the point. This "discrimination," though, is not engraved on stone tablets. Shouldn't we devote our consumer-protection energies to teaching the poor how to obtain coupons and how to use them wisely? e