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Like any tool, couponing can do a lot of damage.

How will it all end?

Like the Federal deficit, couponing keeps ballooning. It threatens to go out of control, to everone's loss.

It isn't the uncountable number of coupons coming off the presses that is so worisome. The more the merrier, say most food manufacturers, agencies, retailers and tens of millions of consumers (and all of the publishers and printers). Relatively few people oppose couponing.

That's the rub, and that's where a big difference lies in comparing exciting couponing with the depressing deficit. There is no enthusiasm anywhere for the deficit, and critics in time will force curtailment. On the other hand, couponing may be done in--not by its critics--but by some of its most ardent champions.

It is the sometimes-too-busy marketing directors, agency creatives and supermarket executives among us who threaten to make couponing unworkable by using this tool wrongly or even recklessly.

Couponing is a powerful tool for winning new customers of strengthening brand loyalty among existing customers. But like any tool, a single coupon issue can do a lot of damage. Slipshod coupon planning can alienate supermarket merchandisers, create havoc at checkouts, bog down redemption handling, and boomerang at manufacturers' coupon redemption budgets.

Considering how long couponing has been going on and how much is known about the rights and wrongs, it is dismaying to still encounter so many ways of botching a good thing.

Take lead time. Ideally, food brokers should be able to alert supermarkets three months before distribution of a coupon, especially when the broker is trying to gain entry for a new product or added shelf space. But whether it's a new or existing product, the supermarket needs plenty of advance coupon notice in order to fine-tune its own schedule of promotions. Supermarket merchandisers can become very upset at the short-notice appearance of a manufacturer's cents-off coupon if the chain is locked into some exceptional pricing in that product category--especially if the chain is double (or triple) couponing.

The coupon itself can be a horror show. Faulty coupon design can undo all the gains made in speeding up the checkout experience--gains achieved at tremendous cost in installing scanners, training sashiers and educating customers.

First-time designers should be required to stand at a checkout and watch the action. The seasoned cashier does a virtuoso performance on the scanner, scales and register--and then gets bogged down trying to decipher the coupons.

First of all, is it a cents-off coupon, or something else? There is a tendency to turn out mail-in manufacturer refund offers in a way that strikes consumers at a quick glance as a store coupon.

When one customer says, "Oh, it's not a coupon? Then I don't think I want this superjumbo year's supply of detergent," the cashier must go through the mechanics of correcting the register. And the checkout line grows longer.

Is there an expiration date on the next of the customer's coupons? If there is, can it be read without turning to the adjacent cashier who is wearing glasses?

Next, a triangular piece of paper in the shape and color of a slice of pizza. Which end is up? Is it a promotion piece for a pizza parlor? No, it's a manufacturer's cents-off coupon, redeemable by the store, but without any redeeming values to offset the bizarre format.

The line grows longer, and the mutterings louder.

Then comes the coupon for frozen vegetables put out by a leading brand. But its for the brand's "Just Harvested" line, not for the customer's choice of "Vegetables in Yummy Sauce" line, or any of the manufacturer's many other variations which all come in packages featuring the familiar brand name. Another purchase to be returned to the display, hopefully, before it thaws.

The people in line who are more than two places away from checkout are tapping their feet and looking around for shorter lines. But there aren't any. Not when 40 percent of all family households are using five or more coupons a week, and too many coupons have built-in flaws of omission or commission.

Five major industry organizations--GMA, FMI, FIAE, NAWGA and NGA--have produced a set of guidelines on couponing. The guidelines don't seek to impose rigid rules and no one is required to follow all or any of the suggestions.

Many marketers, for example, don't agree with the recommendation that "expiration dates should be avoided whenever possible." The use of an expiration date, and its timing, can be critical in supporting a product introduction, or in orchestrating a year-long advertising campaign.

But the guidelines do deal with some basics in couponing that are often ignored. While some argue that the guidelines go too far, as in the matter of expiration, others find them inadequate.

It's just common sense for manufacturers to insist that their ad agencies design coupons that clearly look like store-redeemable coupons, in standard sizes and shapes no matter how cute it may be to have the wedge of paper that looks like a pizza slice.

The cents-off value should be clearly stated in type size that doesn't dwarf a statement of how many packages of product must be purchased. The specific product should be identified by package illustration so that there is no question about which variation of the brand the coupon is for. The expiration date, or the words, "No Expiration Date," should be big and bold.

Space rates compress the room for saying all that and much more to satisfy the marketing manager, the corporate counsel, the consumer, the retailer and the clearing house. But it can be done in ways that make couponing work as it should, without creating problems all along the way.

The checkout is just one critical point at which couponing rises or fails. Manufacturers sometimes need counseling about budgeting for redemptions, such as the rate of return to expect in the second year after issuing a no-expiration coupon.

And supermarket chains need to exercise some self-control in how they deal with the public's yen for coupon savings. In some areas of severe competition among chains, we see triple couponing offered by one retailer and quickly copied by rival stores. Of all the promotion avenues open to retailers, triple couponing has to rank as the most illogical, self-destructing use of an otherwise sound marketing concept. No one can afford triple couponing!

Couponing is a concept that continues to produce results when it is carried out with a mix of marketing savvy, creativity and common sense. When it's done right, it moves a lot of product--without slowing down the checkout line.
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Author:Lempert, Philip
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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