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Affluent, white women dominate coupon use, according to study

Dec. 9, 2011 at 11:47 AM ET

With the rise in the tendency for local businesses to offer extreme discounts through Web sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, coupon-clipping has gone mainstream. 

Still, one might assume that the good old-fashioned coupons that are cut out from the newspaper or offered at the entrance of the grocery store are primarily used by shoppers on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, who the need discounts the most. But that’s not the case, according to a new study conducted at the University of Arizona’s Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

A team led by professor and department chair Anita Bhappu studied coupon use among people who were responsible for doing the household grocery shopping, and found that 26 percent of the shoppers made up a category of shopper they dubbed as the “coupon diva.” (Bhappu’s group used a third-party market research firm to administer the survey, which was taken by over 250 people nationwide and represented the U.S. population in terms of gender and race distribution).

These shoppers, who would use six or more coupons on each shopping trip over the three-month period of the study, were high earners, with 24 percent of them reporting at least $75,000 in household income; 78 percent of the coupon divas were white; and 51 percent of them were women.

"They don’t use coupons because of financial constraints, but because they perceive coupons as saving them money," said Bhappu in a statement. “Part of it is the value perception. It's not just about money – it's about time and money."

On the other hand, 71 percent of the people surveyed were “non-users” in that they rarely or never used coupons when they went shopping. Of the non-users, 61 percent had incomes of $35,000 or less, and 26 percent were African-American and Asian-American. That’s compared with 16 percent of the coupon divas who were African-American or Asian-American, and 68 percent of the non-users who were white.

One other standout characteristic that differed among the so-called coupon divas and the non-users was whether or not they had children—64 percent of coupon divas had children at home, while 81 percent of the non-users did not have any kids. So one plausible explanation about coupon use could have to do with the number of mouths to feed in a given household. “Their grocery bill is just larger than the non-users,” surmised Bhappu. “That may be one of the reasons they’re looking to save money on their grocery bill.”

Bhappu's team had previously conducted studies about how and why Arizona shoppers use digital coupons and found that use by so-called "early adopters," who also happen to be affluent, was rising.

And while paper coupons are still used more often than digital coupons, the noteable takeaway from the previous study, Bhappu said, is that there was no perceived stigma or embarrassment at all among the frequent coupon users. In fact, “they give coupons to other people in line who don’t have them,” said Bhappu. “They chastise people who don’t use them, saying, ‘You’re wasting your money.’”

So now, perhaps, coupons are so mainstream that even affluent shoppers feel comfortable cashing in on discounts without feeling like people are looking at them funny.

Indeed, the popularity of sites like Groupon and Living Social have put coupons in the spotlight and made their use commonplace, particularly by affluent females. And so has the advent of TLC’s “Extreme Couponing,” the madcap TV show in which discount-obsessed shoppers load up on cartfuls of more goods than any one family could possible handle, all for mere pocket change and aided by a fanatical use of coupons.

But Bhappu also pointed out that the “coupon divas” tended to see value in the time spent searching for and using coupons, while the non-users did not, which could also relate to whether or not there was a stay-at-home parent in the picture who had the time to clip coupons to save on groceries for the family, versus an employed person who didn't have kids but also lacked as much time at home. (She would also like to control for employment status or type of job in future studies.)

And with the longstanding economic recession, more Americans are living paycheck to paycheck - and, perhaps, coupon to coupon.

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