The number of coupons used by Americans plummeted in 2012 — down 17 percent.
After surging during the great recession, the old-fashioned savings tool seems to have lost favor among consumers. Or has it?
Coupon industry insiders disagree on whether the drop is an aberration caused by a poor mix of coupon offers in 2012 or whether it signals the beginning of the end of the paper coupon era.
“The industry is not used to having double-digit (swings) either way,” said John Morgan, executive director of the Association of Coupon Professionals, the coupon industry’s trade organization. “That’s a big deal. Historically, it has been slow single-digit (increases or decreases) either way.”
Last year, U.S. consumers redeemed 2.9 billion coupons on consumer packaged goods. That’s according to the most recent tally by NCH Marketing, one of the country’s major coupon clearinghouses. NCH is a division of Valassis, which publishes the Red Plum coupon inserts for newspapers.
As of 2012, about 90 percent of all coupons were still distributed in coupon books, the vast majority delivered via the Sunday newspaper. Thus far, the so-called “click-to-card” digital coupons that shoppers load to their store loyalty cards have amounted to about 1 percent of coupons distributed, and redemption is similarly small.
The 17.1 percent drop in redemptions in 2012 is even more dramatic considering the total number of coupons made available — paper and digital — remained steady at 305 billion.
Charlie Brown, vice president of marketing at NCH, attributes the decline to a calculated move by manufacturers to correct an “unusually high” redemption rate in 2011.
Coupon redemption reached 3.5 billion coupons redeemed in 2011, a 6 percent increase over the previous year and a 26 percent increase since before the recession.
In 2012, manufacturers put on the brakes. The coupon values became skimpier, the expiration dates shorter, and oftentimes the coupons required that shoppers buy two or even three of an item before getting 55 cents off.
Manufacturers also issued more coupons for new products, which, Brown said, “doesn’t have the same level of appeal.”
“For the manufacturer, the redemption of the coupon is an expense,” he said, so they purposely made the coupon offers less attractive. “They don’t want 100 percent of the coupons redeemed.”