Coupon use often depends on the response of the clerkWho uses coupons? You might think that the most cash-strapped among us would use them most, but studies have shown that upper-income whites make far greater use of them than members of minorities of all income levels. A recent study published in the Journal of Retailing provides some interesting answers as to why the most needy are not the most frequent users.

One surprising finding of the study conducted by Anne M. Brumbaugh of the College of Charleston and and Jose Antonio Rosa of the University of Wyoming was the degree to which the attitude of the checkout clerk can determine our willingness to use coupons.
A clerk's conscious or subconscious negative cues (deep sighs, rolled eyes, terse movements) are enough to discourage all but the most confident from using coupons. On the other hand, a clerk who implies that the customer is shrewd and admirably frugal can inspire the customer to use coupons more often. (Here I have to admit that in the past I've been one of those discouraging factors, frowning and tapping my foot when the person ahead of me in the checkout line pulls out a wad of unsorted coupons.)

I recently took a $1 off of New York Style Bagel Crisps coupon to my local grocer to get a read on the clerk's reaction. My checkout person took and scanned it without giving off any cues one way or the other about how he felt about my using coupons. Was the study wrong? Of course, I'm a white middle-class boomer male, the least likely group to receive a scowl because we're most likely to be a golfing buddy of the store manager. Also, one coupon is not as burdensome as a fistful of them, especially if the customer has to dig them out of his/her coupon wallet while other customers wait in line.

The study also investigated the reason behind previous study findings that even more affluent members of racial minorities don't often use coupons. They cited a study that found "the consistently higher levels of poor service experienced by high socioeconomic status black and high acculturation Latino consumers reduced coupon use by both decreasing their confidence and increasing their embarrassment over coupon use." More affluent white stay-at-home moms and dads, on the other hand, "have incorporated the judicious use of coupons into the image of what stay-at-home spouses should do."

The key finding? Well-to-do white shoppers are confident enough in their affluence that they are not threatened by the attitude of clerks. Those who struggle to keep their financial footing, on the other hand, are very sensitive to the criticism they often receive at the checkout counter, and therefore unwilling to use the coupons they see as symbols of their financial plight.

Coupons are a time-tested strategy for building business, but this study suggests that a store that prints coupons but does not train its staff to treat users as valued, admired customers is shooting itself in the foot. The next time a clerk looks down his/her nose at you when you pull out a coupon, recognize them for the fool they are, and keep on clipping. Don't let the disregard of a clerk cheat you out of the savings.

Have you ever been sneered at or chastised for using coupons? Please share your experiences in the comments.

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