The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your love of Bed Bath & Beyond coupons could be killing the retailer

Investors are worried that Bed Bath & Beyond is inching closer to bankruptcy. But, even if it does go under, the store has a permanent place in movies and TV. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Mikki Madden doesn’t shop at Bed Bath & Beyond all that often. But she keeps a stash of hundreds of the retailer’s coupons, just in case.

She sorts them by type — 20 percent discounts at the top with $5 to $15 ones underneath — and keeps them in a pouch in her car.

“I feel like, if I throw them away, I’m throwing away money,” said Madden, 53, a retired math teacher who lives in Seaford, Del. “I don’t think I’ve ever shopped there without a coupon."

Bed Bath & Beyond has built a business on coupons. The housewares chain began mailing out 20 percent off “Big Blue” coupons nearly 30 years ago, at a time when sweeping discounts were a novelty. The idea was that the coupons would draw shoppers into the store, where they would then buy other items at full price. For many years, it worked.

But now, after years of stalled sales and declining profits, the New Jersey-based retailer is pulling back on coupons in a broad effort to turn around its business. The company is mailing out fewer promotions and is choosier about how those offers can be used. (It is common knowledge, frequent shoppers say, that coupons can be used after they’ve expired, and that multiple coupons can be applied to each transaction.)

Lululemon sold women on $100 leggings. Now it’s coming after men, with $38 boxers.

The coupon “program has evolved over time and will continue to evolve,” spokeswoman Jessica Jones said in an email.

Executives say weaning customers off discounts will ultimately lead to higher profits. But analysts say the retailer faces an even bigger challenge: Getting customers into its stores, even without coupons.

“Bed Bath & Beyond needs to create new reasons for the consumer to come in,” said Jonathan Matuszewski, an analyst for Jefferies. “And they need to do that before they yank the coupons.”

Discounts are just one part of the equation. This week, Bed Bath & Beyond replaced five board members, including its two co-founders, after activist investors called for an overhaul of the company. Cluttered stores, a dated website and confusion over prices have resulted in a company that “has lost touch with modern retail,” a trio of investors said in a March 26 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Bed Bath & Beyond says it is addressing those concerns by creating private-label brands, reorganizing stores and closing 40 underperforming locations. The company has also opened a number of “lab stores” that focus on home decor, food and drinks, and health and beauty care.

“Our transformation is well underway and already delivering results,” Jones said. “We are improving the brand experience overall, curating our assortment.”

Last year, she added, the company saved $126 million, or 5 percent of its costs, by reducing the amount of inventory in stores.

Sears is suing Steven Mnuchin and other former board members

But 18 months into the overhaul, investors say Bed Bath & Beyond still lags its competitors. Same-store sales, a closely watched industry metric, have declined for eight straight quarters, and shares of the company’s stock are down 80 percent since 2013.

The company’s “horrendous performance” has wiped out $8 billion of its value over 15 years, investors from three hedge funds said last month. The investors — Legion Partners, Macellum Advisors GP and Ancora Advisors — called on the retailer to sell its less successful businesses, including Buy Buy Baby and Cost Plus World Market, and rein in executive pay.

Parents dread life ‘without a Rock 'n Play’: Fisher-Price recall triggers shock and frustration

“Shareholders should not let this board continue to destroy shareholder value,” they said in the filing. “Analysis of the company’s history illustrates years of initiatives that have failed to deliver results.”

On Friday, the trio doubled-down on its message, with the release of a 168-page document that takes aim at the company’s stores, merchandise and culture. They complain about redundant store displays — in one visit, investors said they found “trash baskets in six different locations within the store” — as well as confusing pricing and a “stale” website. Other points of contention: the company’s Pinterest followers (too few), its font choices (too small) and product mix (too unwieldy).

The group also alleges nepotism. In 2007, the investors said, Bed Bath & Beyond paid roughly $67 million for Buy Buy Baby, which was founded by the sons of Bed Bath & Beyond co-founder Leonard Feinstein, who used a loan from their father. A decade later, the company paid $1 million to Chef Central, another “founder’s son’s pet project,” according to the group.

In a statement, Bed Bath & Beyond said it “will carefully review the merits of the activist group’s presentation” and find ways to incorporate the group’s advice.


On a recent weekday morning, employees outnumbered shoppers at a Bed Bath & Beyond store in downtown Washington. Those who were shopping said they had stopped in for something quick: a lightweight stroller, a pair of ear buds or a tube of toothpaste.

“I don’t come here very often,” said Zoe French, 51, who works nearby and was after laundry detergent. “Once a year, maybe I’ll use a coupon if I need to buy something big.”

That, analysts said, is crisis for the beleaguered chain: shoppers who balk at the thought of buying something at Bed Bath & Beyond without a coupon.

Consumers around the world are spending less on almost everything. Even booze.

“When people Google ‘Bed Bath & Beyond,' an increasing number of searches have the word ‘coupon’ in them,” Matuszewski said. “People have been trained to look for them."

Today’s shoppers, he added, have become accustomed to never-ending deals. They are also increasingly shopping online, where competitors like Amazon and Target often offer similar prices with the added convenience of free, two-day shipping. (Bed Bath & Beyond offers free shipping on orders over $39.)

Bed Bath & Beyond in 2016 introduced a loyalty program that, for $29 a year, offers a 20 percent discount and free shipping on all purchases. But analysts say the arrangement — an attempt to get shoppers to make more frequent purchases — is eating into the company’s profit margins.

Sweeping discounts became the norm during the last recession, as desperate retailers tried to get shoppers into their stores. It worked at first, but long term, the result has been slimmer profit margins and a race to the bottom, as companies slash prices lower and lower.

“Coupons are less relevant in today’s world,” said Oliver Wintermantel, an analyst for Evercore.

Can Bed Bath & Beyond fix its business? Perhaps, he said. After all, Best Buy — plagued with many of the same problems, including shelves overflowing with run-of-the-mill merchandise — has lured shoppers back into its stores by paring down inventory, adding services and investing in its website.

Best Buy has figured out what customers want

“It will be tough. They’ve lost a lot of time and now it’s 2019,” Wintermantel said. “It’s not 2012, like it was for Best Buy."

Doing away with discounts could prove difficult, too. A number of other retailers have tried to dispense with sweeping promotions in recent years with less-than-stellar results. Quarterly sales at J.C. Penney fell 20 percent after the company replaced its never-ending coupons with “everyday low prices” in 2012. (It brought back coupons the following year.) At Jos. A Bank, sales plunged 32 percent after the company replaced its “buy one, get three free” sales with more straightforward pricing.

And three years after Victoria’s Secret vowed to stop mailing out “free panty” coupons, analysts say underwear prices at the retailer’s stores have fallen to their lowest level in a decade. The company has also begun offering “buy two, get one free” bras and started mailing out “free panty” promotions again.

No more ‘free panty’ deals: Big changes are afoot at Victoria’s Secret

“We believe it shows how desperate the company is to drive consumer traffic,” Jefferies analyst Randal Konik wrote in an August research note.


Denise Hosek has no patience for coupons. Unless, of course, they’re from Bed Bath & Beyond.

“I literally do not use coupons anywhere else,” said Hosek, 46, who lives in Austin. “But when you compare Bed Bath & Beyond at 20 percent off, with Amazon, there’s no question that Bed Bath & Beyond is way better.”

Hosek recently joined the company’s loyalty program and shops at her local store every other week for toiletries, housewares and other staples. It’s her favorite place to shop, she said, because she knows exactly what to expect.

“They don’t move their merchandise around, the lines are short and everything is always stocked,” said Hosek, a mortgage loan officer. “I can go around the store and fill my basket up in five minutes."

“And then,” she said, “I go to the register to use my coupons.”