USA Today is reporting that the one big winner in today's economy is online coupon sites: this winter, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau, 38.6 million Americans will use online coupons, up 22% from the same period last year.

I'm hardly surprised, having written for WalletPop about many of the coupon sites the paper mentions in its article, such as Coupons.com and BradsDeals.com.

In fact, there are so many sites out there -- Rather-Be-Shopping.com, RetailMeNot, CurrentCodes.com -- that coupon shopping is arguably becoming something of a sport. I saw that last weekend. My wife and kids and I were hanging out with some friends, and when we began talking about the economy, I asked one of them, Kim Johnson, about coupons.

And suddenly she's rushing into another room and back and pulling out a giant photo album, crammed with coupons.

Kim, who lives in southwestern Ohio, is a part-time nurse at a hospital, and her husband has a very good job. In other words, they aren't poor (and, of course, maybe shopping with coupons keeps them not poor). She does this because she wants to save money, but also because she's come to love the thrill of chasing those elusive bargains.

She told me how she'll buy several copies of the Sunday newspaper, so if she has, say, several great deals, she can suddenly buy, say, six boxes of cereal for an incredibly low price. (The trick is to make sure the savings outweighs the cost of several Sunday papers. But even there, she said she knows a place where the paper is sold for 99 cents, versus the full $1.50 price.)

Then when I told her that I recently began using ShortCuts.com, an AOL-owned coupon site which links grocery store coupons to many grocery cards like Kroger's, Ralph's and King Sooper's, Kim said that she did and raised me one, asking if I use the P&G ESaver web site.

And then she explained how Procter & Gamble -- which makes a ton of household brand name products like Tide and Crest -- has a web site where, like ShortCuts.com, you can load coupons onto your grocery card. And so that night, there I was at the P&G coupon site.

Now, obviously you have to be smart about this -- a lot of times coupon deals look great -- and then later you realize that even with the savings, you could have saved more by buying a cheaper brand. Or worse, you realize the product you usually use and like better is the cheaper brand. Or with online shopping, you can easily not comparison shop enough but just get exciting because you have an online coupon for Barnes & Noble when without the coupon, it's still cheaper at Amazon.com. You get the idea.

But obviously there are plenty of times when coupons, online or off, can work in your favor. Owners of online coupon sites can rest a little easy, assuming more Kim Johnsons continue to visit their sites. Because they aren't likely to lose those customers, even when the economy ultimately picks up again. As Kim told me, she can't stand to go into grocery stores now without printouts of online coupons and lists of coupons that she has loaded onto her grocery card. Kim is a convert to coupons. "I'll never go back," said Kim.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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