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Coupon clipping declines as shoppers get savvier

Nati Harnik / AP file

Margery Gibbs uses coupons at a store in Omaha, Neb., in 2009. Coupon use fell in 2012 after several strong years.

The good, old-fashioned coupon – which surged in popularity in recent years – appears to be falling out of favor.

Two separate studies show that coupon use declined significantly in 2012.

One study, from coupon industry consulting firm Inmar, found that about 3 billion coupons were redeemed in 2012, a drop of about 14.3 percent from approximately 3.5 billion coupons redeemed in 2011. Another, from NCH Marketing Services, found that coupon use fell by 17 percent in 2012 over the year before.

The drop came after several good years for the coupon, which seemed to indicate that the weak economy had helped bring coupon clipping back in style. The coupon has even enjoyed its 15 minutes of pop culture fame thanks to the reality show “Extreme Couponing,” which documents people using thousands of coupons to save hundreds of dollars stockpiling diapers, paper towels and other items.

But experts say that while frugality is still in vogue, many shoppers have gotten so savvy at saving money that they've moved past the coupon.

“It was like the training wheels … to teach people how to save money,” Phil Lempert, the chief executive of Supermarket Guru, said of coupons.

Experts say it’s pretty common for coupon use to rise when the economy goes south, and start falling as the economy gets better.

But the economic gains in 2012 weren’t really strong enough to warrant people giving up their frugal habits. In addition, experts say they saw plenty of other reasons that coupon use has declined.

“It’s sort of a thousand cuts,” said David Mounts, the chief executive of Inmar. “It’s little things here and there.”

For starters, there were slightly fewer coupons. The industry distributed about 310 billion coupons in 2012, down from 313 billion in 2011 and a big drop from 336 billion in 2010, according to Inmar’s research.

Last year’s batch of coupons also tended to be for smaller discounts and to expire more quickly than in the past, Mounts said.

In addition, shopping habits have changed.

Some customers have started to want more than a one-size-fits-all coupon that you clip out of a Sunday newspaper, Mounts said.  Instead, more shoppers are looking for personalized deals that more closely match their shopping habits. They also want deals that are delivered digitally so they don’t have to manage a stack of paper.

So far, though, those types of coupons aren’t that widespread. Inmar’s data shows that more than four in 10 coupons still come from the newspaper inserts.

Frugally minded shoppers also are finding even more sophisticated ways to save money, said Lempert of Supermarket Guru, which tracks customer shopping habits.

These days, he’s seeing more savvy shoppers going to multiple stores to find the best prices on food and other items. Their stops may include drugstores, dollar stores, warehouse chains like Costco and specialty grocers such as Trader Joe’s.

They’re also turning more to store brands that may be cheaper than name brands, even when there’s a coupon for the branded item, he said.

Many younger customers also are constantly changing their eating and shopping habits, he said, and may not be as interested in buying the items that are traditionally discounted with coupons. They also may be more captivated by new types of ways to save, such as a four-hour sale promoted on Twitter.

“Frankly, the coupons weren’t meeting their needs,” Lempert said.

The extreme couponing fad may not have helped either.

The trend sparked a backlash among some in the industry, who alleged that the TV show set unrealistic expectations.

Lempert thinks it also made some shoppers feel uneasy. He said he receives thousands of emails a week from shoppers, and reaction to extreme couponing was largely negative.

Despite such challenges, experts say the coupon industry is adapting to changing customer preferences. Inmar’s early data from the start of 2013 appears to be showing more positive trends in coupon use than last year, Mounts said, which suggests coupon clipping likely won't disappear completely any time soon.