It's almost frightening, the zeal with which some people collect grocery coupons. A few still use those pastel-striped organizers that divide soup deals from toilet paper bargains and, for most, Sunday newspapers remain a major source for savings. But a zealous coupon enthusiast is also alerted to deals on Facebook and Twitter, belongs to an exchange club and is a slave to any number of Web sites that provide printable coupons.
The ultimate goal is shaving hundreds of dollars off the annual grocery bill, but the immediate high is "stacking," which combines store coupons with manufacturer coupons on top of buy-one-get-one-free deals. That's BOGO in grocery shopping vernacular.
"For example, let's say there is a 50-cent coupon good for a 1-pound box of Ronzoni pasta, which usually costs around $1.29. Sometimes they are on sale as a BOGO, which means I can buy two boxes for $1.29. Then I use two coupons worth 50 cents each and get both boxes for only 29 cents!" says Marge Scheidl of New Port Richey. "It doesn't get much better than that."
Scheidl's enthusiasm — dare we say giddiness — over the art of the grocery deal is not unusual during these recessionary times. Coupon redemption was up 23 percent in 2009 over the previous year. According to NCH Marketing Services of Illinois, more than 75 percent of all shoppers use coupons, about 23 percent religiously.
Kati Kiefer of Valrico turned to couponing in 2009 when her husband's pay reduction took a bite out of the family's budget. She says via e-mail that she routinely saves up to 80 percent on her monthly grocery bill and has started a Web site (truecouponing.com) to teach her system to others. Attention deal seekers: Though there are many other guerrilla coupon sites, Kiefer's includes deals found in all stores in the Tampa Bay area. That's a bonus.
Kiefer, who has a degree in marketing from the University of South Florida according to her Web site, claims she's reduced her family's monthly food bill from $600 a month to $250. Not bad for Mom, Dad and four children. She's not just clipping coupons; Kiefer is an expert in understanding the codes on the coupons. A NED (no expiration date) is more valuable than a YMMV (your manager may vary).
She also espouses every coupon devotee's mantra: Don't buy products you don't use just because they are cheap. Something you hate is still something you hate even at 13 cents a can.
Americans have been drawn to coupons for more than 100 years, the first one attributed to the Coca-Cola Co. in the late 1880s. But it was food manufacturer C.W. Post who made the practice widespread in 1909 when he began giving coupons away for breakfast cereal and other products.
Coupons have always been a good way to get customers to try new products and lure them into stores, which may lead them to buy other items. Not everyone is as good at restraint as the nation's coupon queens.
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten says the chain has noticed a tremendous increase in customers using coupons. Last week, Publix, one of the nation's largest regional grocery store chains, launched a new feature on its Web site (publix.com/save) that includes printable manufacturer coupons. Patten says the offerings will change frequently.
Sweetbay, too, has noticed an increase in coupon shoppers, but spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau says that overall production of coupons is down.
"Coupons are introduced mostly for new products and since there aren't as many new products being introduced, there aren't as many coupons," she says. Sweetbay doesn't court the coupon shopper as much as some grocery outfits, she says, because the chain's emphasis is on "everyday low prices."
She also notes something that many people who dabble in the coupon game already know: Coupon zealotry requires a time commitment.
"It takes an awful lot of organization, but you can save some crazy money," she says.
And you'll have to register for coupon sites, some of which charge monthly fees. You will also get more e-mail to your box about sales.
It's a job
Pam Haengel used to sneer at coupon clipping. Too much time. Too much hassle.
Then about eight months ago, the St. Petersburg mother of two read a Facebook post from a friend who had just saved a lot of money on her weekly groceries by using coupons. The friend was using thegrocerygame.com to find deals. It didn't take long for Haengel to get hooked.
Now, she rattles off her biggest savings — she still has the receipts — like a gambler talking about her latest jackpot. "My personal best: I spent $122.81 at Publix and saved $104.32. I generally save ridiculous amounts of money. It's a combination of retail therapy and Vegas. It's like the slots with the bells going off."
Yes, there's a learning curve, she says, but the savings add up quickly. It's a job that pays pretty well an hour, she says.
And now, she hardly bothers with items — unless it's produce — that she can't get for 50 percent or more off.
"When I shop I can't wait to get to the end to see how much I saved."
Plus, she has new shelves in the garage to hold her overflowing bargains. Like 18 jars of pasta sauce for just pennies apiece.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.