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Extreme couponing sparks backlash

The advent of extreme couponing is creating a backlash as some complain it's leading to bad behavior.
A scene from the new season of "Extreme Couponing."
A scene from the new season of "Extreme Couponing."TLC

Sunday newspapers are being stolen, manufacturers and retailers are getting frustrated and shoppers are clashing with store managers over their loads of coupons and carts of items.

The advent of extreme couponing, popularized by the TLC show of the same name about people who clip coupons obsessively, is sparking a backlash as some manufacturers and retailers complain that the pursuit of a big bargain has an ugly side.

“A fairly large number of people are going into stores with really unrealistic expectations,” said Bud Miller, executive director of Coupon Information Corp., which represents major manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Kraft Foods.

“Extreme Couponing” starts a new season later this month. The show is in many ways a Zeitgeist for our recession-scarred era.

It depicts bargain-obsessed people coupon-clipping for hours, and in some cases even Dumpster diving for more coupons.

The shoppers then fill their grocery carts with hundreds of items, occasionally clearing out store shelves in the process. Then they present their overloaded carts and hefty stacks of coupons to a cashier, who rings up hundreds of dollars in savings.

Afterwards, it’s back to the couponers’ homes, where they can show off full-to-bursting storage rooms piled high with diapers, soap and other products bought in bulk at bargain prices.

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The coupon-clipping tales have inspired plenty of people to give couponing a try, but the real-world results aren’t always as impressive.

  • In Georgia, Fox News reported that a woman said her local grocery store

  • In Colorado, a local television station reported that a woman

  • In Idaho, ABC News reported that a woman

The attention to coupon clipping comes as many Americans are struggling with the weak economy and the high jobless rate. Looking for ways to save a buck, many have rediscovered the old-fashioned coupon.

Coupon redemption surged 27 percent in 2009 to 3.3 billion coupons, according to consulting firm Inmar. It stayed at that level in 2010, but that tide might be changing.

Inmar reported last week that coupon redemptions rose 4 percent in the second quarter of this year, as compared to a year earlier.

Matt Sharp, the executive producer of “Extreme Couponing,” said the aim of the show is to document how people use coupons in over-the-top ways, and that the show does not condone behavior that violates store rules or manufacturers' policies, or breaks the law.

He notes that not everyone is upset about the show. He said stores that were featured on the show last season have allowed them to film again this season.

Sharp said the show also has heard from thousands of people who were inspired to try couponing because of the show, and were thrilled to save a bit of money.

Sharp argues that many of the people they feature on the show turned to extreme couponing because they needed to find ways to save money. That’s a familiar story in this economy.

“The people on the show that started doing this, they’re extreme couponers. They’re not out to cheat the system. They’re not bank robbers,” he said.

Manufacturers and retailers say they want people to use coupons — after all, it’s a way to encourage people to use new products and inspire loyalty. But Miller, of Coupon Information Corp., blames TLC’s show for making people think they can flout coupon rules in the pursuit of a big bargain, or see their bill reduced to practically nothing.

The Food Marketing Institute, a trade group for food retailers, last month warned retailers to watch out for fraudulent behavior such as trying to use a coupon for one product to redeem another, similar product. They also warned about people trying to intimidate cashiers to violate in-house policies such as how many coupons a person can use per visit.

Miller said some stores have recently been more explicit in their policies on how many coupons a customer can use, and what coupons will be accepted. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the retailer recently took steps to make its policies more clear.

Before extreme couponers even get to the store, there’s also the matter of collecting the coupons. Newspapers across the country have recently reported an uptick in Sunday newspaper thefts, which they blame on people trying to get more coupons for less money.

The News & Observer in North Carolina reported last month that the newspaper was moving some sales inside stores, rather than relying on outside racks where people might be more likely to help themselves to a load of papers.

Dan Schaub, senior vice president of audience development and membership service with The Sacramento Bee, another newspaper in the same McClatchy chain, said some newspapers are taking steps to address occasional thefts.

Still, he said newspapers also are seeing an upside to the couponing craze as more people buy Wednesday and Sunday papers because they want the coupon inserts.