It's no secret that the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has given rise to a new breed of shoppers who artfully and unabashedly combine store, manufacturer and digital coupons to shave serious money off their shopping bills, sometimes buying in bulk and wiping retailers' shelves clean, while squeezing the life out of profit margins.
The extreme couponing trend reflects "consumers looking for ways to save money any way they can, very much the way their grandparents did during the Great Depression," says Brian Hoyt head of communications for WhaleShark Media, the parent company of RetailMeNot.com, which bills itself as the biggest issuer of coupon codes in the U.S.
The techniques are most often deployed at supermarkets and drugstore chains because they offer the biggest variety of coupons -- from manufacturer and store coupons to point-driven loyalty programs, Hoyt tells DailyFinance. These stores are also natural targets for heavy coupon use because they stock staples like food and toilet paper -- non-negotiable purchases even in a down economy.
But some retailers are saying enough is enough, and are fighting back by adjusting their coupon policies.
"A growing number of retailers are creating new policies or are enforcing their existing coupon policies more stringently," Matthew Tilley, director of marketing for coupon processing firm Inmar, tells DailyFinance.
No Stacking, No Mass Buys
Supermarkets have led the coupon counterattack.
Kroger (KR), the largest U.S. grocery store chain, has said shoppers can no longer "stack" coupons, meaning that a digital coupon and a manufacturer paper coupon couldn't be combined to reduce the price of a single item.
Food Lion (DEG) also stopped allowing shoppers to stack coupons at some of its locations.
Meanwhile, drug chains are taking steps to ensure extreme couponers who buy big quantities of merchandise don't clear out their shelves.
Rite Aid (RAD) has specified that it "may accept up to four identical coupons for the same number of qualifying items as long as there is sufficient stock to satisfy other customers," according to a press statement.
And Walgreens (WAG) now asserts that "management reserves the right to limit quantity of items purchased," Tilley says.
The nation's biggest discounters are also adapting to the extreme couponing craze.
Target (TGT) has clarified that two buy-one-get-one-free coupons can't be combined to make both items free, Tilley says.
And Walmart (WMT), the world's biggest retailer, issued an updated policy last year "which states that only original copies of print-at-home coupons will be accepted in its stores," he says.
Risk of Alienating Bargain Hunters
The weak economic climate isn't the only thing propelling the coupon craze forward. In recent years, retailers themselves have fed its momentum, initiating large numbers of discount sales and coupon offers that helped encourage the growth of the trend.
So stores today walk the fine line of cracking down on heavy coupon usage while trying to keep luring in the bargain-hungry -- among them, many younger shoppers. Indeed, the savvy consumers who came of age during the Great Recession are adept at finding deals and mining promotional coupons online, Hoyt says. "This behavior is not going away," he notes. "The trend line continues to go up."
Also, coupon redemption often grants retailers repeat business, "which is [one of] the most important things to them," Hoyt says.
All of that means it won't be so easy for stores to push back on extreme couponers. But for the sake of their profit margins, they're going to try.