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WINNING THE COUPON GAME HARD-CORE CLIPPERS FIND STRATEGIES THAT PAY OFF.

Byline: BARBARA CORREA Staff Writer

For news junkies, the highlight of a Sunday morning is being able to pore over the entire paper without rushing.

But coupon clippers are of a different tribe -- one that likes to quickly sort through the stacks of newsprint and shove aside the latest sports, business and political news for the week's juiciest savings opportunities.

For the uninitiated, coupon clipping might seem like a big effort for a small payoff. But disciplined spendthrifts claim coupons can shave up to 75percent off monthly grocery bills.

``I get about $25 of groceries a week for between $3 to $5,'' says Deanna Gasca, a stay-at-home mother in Diamond Bar. ``I rarely buy unless I get it at a discount.''

Gasca said she never considered clipping coupons until she left the working world to raise her two children. But living on one income with a $300 monthly budget for all supermarket purchases has forced her to become skilled at the coupon game.

Every Sunday, she goes through all the supermarket ads to find sales. Then she matches coupons she has clipped from previous weeks to current sales, allowing her to use the coupons to maximum benefit.

``You need a good filing system,'' Gasco says.

Welcome to the world of the coupon queen. (There are coupon kings out there too, but since couponing tends to go hand-in-hand with meal planning and grocery shopping, more clippers tend to be women.)

Retailers offer $300 billion worth of packaged-goods coupons each year, but consumers redeem just 1 percent of that. ``Marketers don't expect all coupons to be redeemed,'' says Charlie Brown, co-chair of the Coupon Council, a coupon advocacy group made up of retailers.

``They're hoping they'll catch that consumer shopping who might try something new because they saw a coupon.''

Within that 1 percent are the serious clippers, who avoid such impulse buying like the plague. Instead of being manipulated by manufacturers and marketers into buying things they don't need, they thrive on using coupons to their own advantage.

Indeed, for hard-core penny-pinchers, couponing could be classified as an extreme-savings sport.

``It's kind of like a game to use your coupons to the best advantage as possible,'' said Amy McClure of Whittier, a second-generation couponer who has been doing it since high school.

Couponing has its own lingo, message boards and Web sites that explain the best tactics for saving. These include ``stacking'' and ``doubling.'' Stacking means combining coupons from several sources, and doubling is when a store automatically doubles the value of a coupon, usually up to a certain maximum. For instance, Lori Clark, co-owner, with her husband, of Apex Carpet Care in Pasadena, recently bought three packages of Danimals drinkable yogurt for $1 each.

``Danimals are normally $3.99. Ralphs had them on sale for $1, and they double, plus I had a coupon. So I bought two of them for free.''

Doubling is a hot button issue for Southern California couponers because Vons stopped doing it this past spring, leaving Ralphs the only chain in the region that gives double credit on coupons. The coupon queens are still livid about Vons' decision, which was based on the assumption that fewer shoppers use coupons nowadays. But the couponers aren't buying that reasoning. And in fact, the real reason is probably closer to the company's bottom line.

Doubling actually costs the supermarket money, whereas single coupon redemptions are reimbursed by the manufacturers of the products for sale. When a grocery store offers double credit, that comes out of its own pocket. Regardless of the reason, coupon shoppers are angry at Vons for changing its policy.

``They lost me when they stopped doubling,'' Gasca said.

Clark says she has asked Vons checkers about whether customers are upset about the double coupon cancellation.

``They say, `Not not all.'... It was dramatic for me.''

Goodbye Scissors! Hello Mouse Click!

Most marketing experts seem to think that print coupons -- single or double -- are facing extinction as a grocery store marketing tool.

``For the retailer, coupons are fairly costly,'' says Jim Wisner of consulting firm Wisner Marketing Group. ``You have the whole redemption process; there's systems maintenance issues.''

He says discounting will certainly continue, but clippable paper coupons will be replaced by electronic loyalty cards and Internet-based coupons.

He said some grocery chains are already testing in-store kiosks, where customers can scan a loyalty card and receive promotions and discounts based on their previous purchases. He also expects to see an increase in printable coupons being e-mailed directly to customers customized to their previous buying record.

The switch from print coupon to electronic will come as ``more of an evolution than you wake up one morning and it's different,'' he said.

Coupon queens are using the Internet in their quest for savings -- but not the way retailers might expect.

Instead of printing lots of coupons online, Amy McClure subscribes to a Web site called grocerygame.com that compiles weekly lists of sales and matches them with manufacturer's coupons. After getting the list, users still have to go back and clip out the coupons they want to use.

One drawback to printable online coupons is that some stores don't take them. Gasca said she tried to use a coupon she had printed at a Wal-Mart in Brea, but a store manager told her they didn't accept coupons printed from a home computer.

``A lot of stores have stopped taking online coupons because of fraud,'' Clark said.

Counterfeit coupons are an issue, but most retailers have fairly sophisticated checks and balances in place to thwart misuse, Wisner said.

Most online coupons automatically limit a home printer to one or two copies, although not all do that.

``The Target Web site has coupons, and it lets you print as many as you want,'' McClure said, ``and you can stack them with manufacturer coupons.''

Another problem with online coupons is that they usually require a registration process that can be time consuming.

``The red tape discourages me,'' Clark said.

Clearly, the coupon queens won't be ready to retire their scissors any time soon.

Getting Started

The Sunday papers are a good place to get started with coupons, but shoppers won't save much more than 5 percent to 10 percent by cutting those discounts out and using them week to week, said MJ Chatfield, a contributor to Grocery Coupon Guide.com. To save some serious cash, consumers need to use multiple coupons and combine them with sales.

Here are some more tips from Chatfield:

Get more coupons by simply e-mailing manufacturers with a mailing address and asking them for coupons.

Stockpile quantities of staples at deep discounts. For example, if you have a big freezer, and it's around the holidays, buy two turkeys on sale, use one for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas.

Make a list. Even if you only have 10 minutes before you go shopping, do a quick run-through in the fridge. Think through your basics before going to the store. Have a basic plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

barbara.correa(at)dailynews.com

(818)713-3662

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 8, 2006
Words:1201
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