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Navigating online coupon sites

Goldberg: Finding true values on discount sites takes patience
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

I rarely seek out or use online coupons. For the first time, this past winter, I did redeem a coupon that I spotted at one-stop coupon shop couponmountain.com. The offer went as follows: spend $50 at any retailer linked to amazon.com’s new apparel shop and receive a $30 coupon at amazon.com.

Since I knew landsend.com, one of the retailers, seldom marks down its current inventory, and there is always a book on my list that I have yet to find at a yard sale, I indulged. I wore the landends.com reversible down jacket all through the exceptionally cold winter and bought Jane Leavy’s “Sandy Koufax” at a deep discount.

But I still have a few problems with e-coupon sites, one-stop shops that link consumers directly to hundreds of coupons, discounts and promotions. I’ve found most online coupon sites have a limited staple of merchants that offer the same discounts over and over again.

I rarely find brands that interest me, especially with grocery coupons. In recent years, I’ve managed to snag some coupons for soy products but they are far and few between.

I’m also well aware that companies use coupons just like any other promotional device to drive sales and increase brand loyalty — “Try it, you’ll like it.” Remember: It’s only a deal if you needed the product in the first place.

Many one-shop coupon sites even require that consumers fill out lengthy forms just to use the site and redeem coupons. The information gathered is then used by these companies to determine how and what consumers consume so that they can market more stuff to them.

Couponmountain.com, a relative newcomer to the coupon scene, is one of the few sites where consumers do not have to register or fill out any forms to take advantage of the more than 500 discounts posted online. “There is no need to sign up, pay any fees or join any lists,” confirms Daniel Washburn, couponmountain.com’s business development manager.

Couponmountain.com focuses on discounts in cyberspace, in contrast to many one-stop shops that primarily post printable coupons for in-store use, says Washburn. Savings also run an average of $10 in contrast to low dollar amounts at other coupon sites, he adds.

The company will launch a new Web site after Labor Day called shopica.com, which is now in the beta or test phase. Shopica.com and couponmountain.com contain the same information but let consumers access it in different ways, explains Talmadge O’Neill, general manager of mezimedia.com, the parent company for both sites.

Couponmountain.com helps consumers find discounts on a specific product. Shopica.com isolates deals by category for consumers who are uncertain about exactly what they want. For example, a consumer interested in the best deal on the latest Harry Potter book might search couponmountain.com for cyber book shops offering a discount that week. On the other hand, a consumer in search of a gift for a sports fan might search the sports section of shopica.com for new, cool sports-related products on sale.

Chicago-based www.coolsavings.com, a long-time cyber player, still requires that consumers register to reap any cool benefits. Registration involves flipping through three online forms. The first form asks consumers to provide a name, address, e-mail, birthday and gender.

The second form, which is optional, lets customers “customize” their coupon offers by responding to 22 questions, from “Are you single and interested in joining an online dating service?” to “What long-distance telephone company do you use?” In return, coupon clippers receive a personalized list of offers. For example, a consumer with kids will receive different offers than a “single city gal,” says a company representative.

The third form, also optional, lets consumers sign up for “free stuff.” For the fun of it, I selected Kraft’s free food and family magazine and two free trail issues of Golf magazine. The sports magazine rejected my request because I would not provide my home phone number, a required field.

Coolsavings.com has up to 250 national and local offers. National vendors include Sears, Target, JCPenney, Best Buy, Fossil Watches, amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. The company is the leader in printable coupons that drive traffic to offline stores, according to Neilson NetRatings and comScore Media Metrix ratings, says a company representative.

But coupon clickers at coolsavings.com still have to download site-specific software to print the coupons. The software prevents consumers from viewing the coupon on the screen and manipulating it. Each coupon has a traceable bar code and the coupon information is sent directly to the printer.

Consumers interested in local and grocery coupons may also want to check out www.valpak.com and www.valupage.com. Valpak.com, the company that sends out millions of light-blue envelope filled with coupons by snail mail, is best known for its local deals. This year, the company started to offer national and cyber discounts online as well. Valupage.com limits its offers coupons at supermarkets, and Osco and Savon drugstores.

Both companies rotate their offers about every month or 4-5 weeks and the Web sites are incredibly easy to use. Consumers just have to type in their zip code to access coupons.

I did, however, encounter some problems at both. Valpak.com had few local offers in my zip code. And many of the online offers were just links to cyber outlets rather than specific deals. Valupage.com didn’t offer coupons at my favorite supermarket, C-town, nor did have offers for the more expensive D’Agastinos, a popular upscale supermarket chain in New York City.

Coupon clippers at valupage.com also have to get used to the idea that the coupons are issued after they pay full price for an item. That is, when the coupon is presented at the register, the computer issues a “valupage savings” dollar amount, which can be taken off the total of the next shopping trip. The reason is help prevent coupon fraud, which is rampant in the coupon industry.

Other coupon sites to explore include www.ecentives.com, www.eversave.com and www.smartsource.com. In addition to coupons, smartsouce.com offers consumers some helpful content, from home-keeping tips to recipes. This Labor Day weekend, check out the recipes for “labor less” meals. I actually printed out the whole wheat biscuit recipe, which may come in handy if I find any soy product coupons.

Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at personalshopper@msnbc.com