Couponing's popularity is growing at a rapid clip

Consumers are flocking to a wave of new classes at community colleges and libraries that show them how to use coupons to save on their grocery bills.

They're searching for coupons online, and they're signing on to one of about 2,000 so-called mommy blogs that pair manufacturer's coupons with items on sale.

Coupon clipping has surged in popularity, and it's not just because of the economy. The increase also has to do with more access to savings - everything from blogs to smartphones - and the popularity of a reality TV show.

"For many people, couponing has gone from a responsible way to save money to a really fun game," said Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com, a website dedicated to couponing.

Nelson said much of the buzz over couponing was stirred by the TLC network's "Extreme Couponing" show, which follows shoppers such as St. Louisan Rebecca Routson, who bought $562 worth of groceries for $25.91 at Shop 'n Save.

"Couponing has actually become an interesting television topic, and because it's entertaining and so extreme, it makes people curious," Nelson said.

The day the pilot of "Extreme Couponing" aired on Dec. 29, Nelson said, she saw a spike in traffic to her site and an increase every time an episode ran. CouponMom.com has 5.5 million members and gets 210,000 hits a day, Nelson said.

Dustin P. Smith, a spokesman for TLC, called the ratings for "Extreme Couponing" very strong. Last week the network announced that a spin-off, "Extreme Couponing All-Stars," is in the works. The show will pit past cast members in a head-to-head competition.

Local community college educators say that some of the most popular new offerings are classes about couponing. At Southwest Illinois College in Belleville, three couponing classes were slated this fall, with each class comprising three sessions. Several sessions have also been added at St. Louis and St. Charles community colleges.

On a recent Saturday, 21 women ranging from young mothers to grandmothers gathered at St. Charles Community College to get couponing tips from Routson, who was on the TLC show in April.

She gave a PowerPoint presentation about coupon lingo - SS stands for the SmartSource ad, PG for Procter & Gamble. The abbreviations appear in savings tips on Internet sites such as her blog couponphenomenon.com.

She described different types of coupons such as Blinkies, the ones that spit out of machines near a product, and Catalinas, ones that come out of the cash register after a purchase.

She files her coupon circulars by the date they come out but doesn't clip them until she's ready to buy an item, otherwise she said she'd have little time for anything else. Routson and her boyfriend have a monthly grocery budget of just $50.

After the TV show aired, Routson said, she has had multiple requests to share what she knows about couponing.

"I had never planned to teach, but people really want to learn about it," she said. "I know how much it helped me, so I couldn't say no."

Executives at grocery stores say they've seen a heightened interest in couponing that has continued to grow since the economy tanked. Paul Simon, a spokesman for Schnucks, said the coupons in weekend newspapers had become so valuable the grocery chain had to change where it stacks the papers.

"We were noticing that either Sunday papers or the coupons out of Sunday papers were being taken from stores, so now we try to make sure that the newspapers are in a good visible spot," he said.

About two months ago, his store started using less traditional coupons, through social media, to reach customers. Schnucks offers special deals to its followers on Facebook, and the feature has been popular, he said.

Todd Vasel, assistant director of marketing and advertising at Dierbergs, said the company offered four special coupons per week available only online.

"That does appeal to people," he said. "It's a draw, and we'll hear if they don't get posted early enough."

James Fisher, chairman of the marketing department at St. Louis University, said another big reason for the growth in coupons was because of the mobile mechanisms that deliver them now.

"You can get coupons delivered to your smartphone, take it into a retail store and they can actually scan the coupon from your phone," he said. "The Internet can help you find coupons that fit your own timing and purchase cycle as well."

Nelson of CouponMom.com said even though couponing isn't new, people are getting smarter about saving and more strategic with their shopping.

And the trend is spreading among young people looking to save money in tough times.

"It used to be coupon users were women between the ages of 30 and 55, and generally you started using coupons when your first baby was born," she said. "But now we're seeing an interest sparked among 20-somethings and even college students."

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