“American craze for ‘extreme couponing’ hits Britain… and it could slash the cost of your weekly shop by a third” – Daily Mail.
The calls I get from journalists and TV researchers tend to come in waves that coincide, roughly, with the level of hysteria about the UK economic outlook. When it’s your common-or-garden, everyday hysteria about our financial crisis, the level of calls is fairly low. When it’s wet-your-pants hysteria, as it has been over the past couple of weeks, the phone begins to ring and ring…
I don’t want to come across as a total grumblebum – although I probably will – but I’m beginning to get the impression that now we have spent a few years teetering on the financial brink etc., fresh hooks and angles for stories about money-saving are running low. Last week I was contacted by a Sunday Times reporter who was writing a story about how American-style extreme couponing was taking off in the UK. I explained the reasons why, um, it wasn’t. (Worst. Interviewee. Ever.)
Needless to say, my comments didn’t make it into print; however the story did. Since then it’s been picked up by the Mail and others, and I’ve been taking various calls about it, so I’m beginning to think that a debunk is in order.
For the uninitiated, extreme couponing is the preserve of a few, single-minded Americans who are dedicated to collecting as many store coupons and saving as much on your shopping as possible. Think this is about clipping a Kellogg’s voucher out of Family Circle magazine? Think again. Here’s a taster, from the awesome (and terrifying) show Extreme Couponing, which I wrote about earlier in the year:
Having lived in the USA for a time, I have first-hand experience of this kind of shopping. Sadly, I wasn’t a participant – if only! – but after moving there, I spent plenty of time standing in checkout queues, trying to work out what on earth was going on as women in front of me proceeded to whip out ring binders stuffed to bursting with coupons for various products and from various sources, and shoved sheaves of them in the cashier’s direction.
So, even though I don’t doubt that more of us are clipping coupons and looking for other ways to save at the supermarket, here are five reasons why extreme couponing doesn’t happen in the UK:
1. For starters, there are fewer coupons available over here. Those glossy, junk mail leaflets from supermarkets can be a treasure trove of bargains and BOGOFs, but in America there are coupon clubs, subscription-only coupon websites, coupon magazines… you get the idea.
2. In America it isn’t unusual for stores to honour their competitors’ coupons. Can you imagine doing that over here? Taking your Tesco vouchers to ASDA and expecting ASDA to accept them? They’d look at you like you were daft.
3. As in the clip above, some stores will also “double up” your coupons if you belong to their loyalty scheme or membership club.
4. Fewer restrictions on how many coupons you can use per purchase. Stores will also honour the full discounts on goods, even if those goods have since been discounted below the initial discounted price. So, for example, if you go to buy a $3 product with a $2 coupon, but the product has since been reduced to $1, you’ll still get the full $2 credited to your receipt.
5. Average living space! A lot of the people featured in the Extreme Couponing have been able to devote entire rooms – and, in many cases, basements – to stashing their spoils. Like this chap, who needs somewhere to stash his 1,500 sticks of deodorant:
Unlike in America, where there is more space to go around, those of us in Britain who have this amount of room to spare don’t generally need to go extreme couponing…
It beats a BOGOF on Ben & Jerry’s, doesn’t it? But if you’re feeling even a little jealous of our coupon-craving American cousins, don’t feel hard done by. The absence of an extreme couponing culture in the UK isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here are the reasons why, even once I had got my head around extreme couponing in America, I couldn’t wait to set foot in a UK supermarket once again. Please note that these were my experiences in one state (Arizona) and I don’t know how representative they are of American supermarkets in general, but here goes:
1. RUBBISH CHEESE. Big slabs of that lurid orange, squeaky Kraft stuff that comes in processed slices here in the UK. Balls of shrink-wrapped, hyper-pasteurised “mozzarella” that were so hard and rubbery, they bounced like tennis balls. Proper cheddar came in sliver-sized packets and cost the Earth. After my first visit to an American supermarket cheese counter, I cried. (Admittedly this was something of an over-reaction and I was also jetlagged at the time, but still…)
2. Surprisingly pricey fresh produce. Sprinkler systems in the fruit and veg aisles that were activated every few minutes (usually with a little “thunderclap”), dousing the fresh produce with water. This was supposed to keep the fruit and veg fresher for longer, but in my experience, it didn’t last as long post-purchase as fruit and veg does over here. Conversely, the milk would stay “fresh” for a month after opening – nothing wrong with that, per se, but it was slightly disconcerting!
3. I found that in general, UK supermarkets offer a lot more buy-one-get-one-free deals, and also offer more frequent discounts and deals on “core” products from the meat, freezer and dairy sections. Whereas a lot of the American deals were for more obscure, niche-focused products that I had never heard of before. (Again though, this may have been just me with my old-fashioned English ways…)
4. As I have mentioned before, certain American supermarket chains have “members’ clubs” and have two prices for every product: a “members’ price” (i.e. normal price) and a non-members’ price, which is a little more. I much prefer the simpler pricing system in the UK, with one price per product for all customers. Equal pricing for all!
5. In UK supermarkets, I don’t get stopped every other visit by random people asking me to join their random churches. Charming at first, but after a while it grates…
Image credit: Cindy Funk.