The sputtering economy has prompted more shoppers to use coupons to save on their grocery bills.
The trend has forced grocery stores to amend their coupon policies and has inspired a reality television show that features people using coupons to get thousands of dollars in groceries for less than $100.
Now this: People are stealing coupon-stuffed Sunday newspapers to get the valuable coupons inside. If they don't use the coupons for their own groceries, they sell them.
The thefts are taking a toll on newspaper distributors, whose profits shrink with each stolen paper.
Craig Holley, the St. Petersburg Times' director of consumer marketing, said he saw the thefts begin about 18 months ago. People often pay for one newspaper at the rack but take multiple copies.
He said the thefts surged in April, which is when the show Extreme Couponing began airing on TLC.
"It's hopped up on crack now," he said. "It really seems like it picked up since then, made it a larger fad. I think it'll last for a while and fade, as all fads do."
In the meantime, the contractors who deliver the newspaper are losing money.
Times independent contractor Rick Theil said a "good week" in profits has plunged from about $775 to as low as $625 because of the thefts.
"That's how much I was stolen from," said Theil, 59, of Clearwater.
In response, Theil now leaves some newspaper boxes empty — except for a sign that directs customers down the street or around the corner to retail locations, where the papers are harder to swipe.
Another independent contractor, John Sullivan, 49, knows that theft is a risk in the newspaper delivery business. But it has never been as rampant as what he's seen the past two months.
"They open the booth with a dollar and take what they can," he said.
At the University Village Publix in St. Petersburg, assistant customer service manager Cathy Theriault said newspaper theft from inside the store is rare. But she recently noticed that Kohl's stick-on coupons had been stripped from the front of every paper.
Some newspapers even have posted signs notifying customers that newspaper theft is a punishable crime.
Cheryl Sadowski, vice president of communications for the Newspaper Association of America, said she has seen the trend take shape on a national level. After a first quarter in which single copy sales were flat or down 5 percent, she said surveys showed that newspapers flew off the stands once April began.
And talks with newspaper staff pointed to couponing — and theft — as the reason.
"While we don't have any hard data to prove that related to new couponing interest, many of the publishers we talked to seem to feel there is a correlation," she said.
C. Ryan Barber can be reached at (727) 893-8505 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/cryanbarber.