Dec 262010
 
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CLIPPING coupons is a hassle.

Intentionally. If shoppers were to redeem any more than just a sliver of them, manufacturers would have a self-created financial catastrophe on their hands.

Digital technology could eventually make coupon-clipping with scissors a quaint oddity. And manufacturers are willing to make clipping easier, but not too easy: they don’t want to reduce prices for customers who’d buy a product anyway. Ideally, coupons will continue to be redeemed only by those who hold out for a deal — those whom marketing experts call “deal prone.”

More than three billion coupons a year are redeemed in the United States, says Steven R. Boal, C.E.O. ofCoupons.com, founded in 1998 and based in Mountain View, Calif. Last year, about half of all redeemed coupons originated in the weekly coupon supplements inserted in local Sunday newspapers, according to Coupons.com’s estimate. But coupons distributed online accounted for 9.8 percent of all coupons redeemed in 2009, up sharply from 1.1 percent in 2006. (Efforts to find data from another source were unsuccessful.)

By visiting Coupons.com or its affiliates, shoppers don’t have to wait for Sunday. They can browse coupon offers at any time online, by product category or expiration date, then print the selected coupons on their home printers.

The digital-to-paper process still ends up requiring scissors — and you have to remember to take the coupons to the store in time. At Coupons.com, printing on a home printer requires installation of its software, which places a unique verification code on each coupon; as a result, the company says, the redemption fraud rate is less than 0.05 percent.

The next step in the coupon’s evolution is the all-digital version. At Coupons.com and other sites, clicking on an onscreen display can place a coupon on a particular retailer’s loyalty card, like Safeway’s Club Card, ready to be applied at checkout. But, of course, shoppers have to remember what they placed on the card, or, at least, remember to print out a list of coupons stored on the card before heading to the store.

Not everyone is willing to go to such trouble. “Loyalty-card-based coupons have had a lower redemption rate without a reminder,” Mr. Boal says.

Being able to see the coupons saved on your smartphone, or, even better, to have saved coupons show up automatically on the phone’s grocery-list app, would make digital coupons much easier to use. This has come to pass, with apps like GroceryiQ (a Coupons.com product),Grocery Gadget and Grocery Pal, to name just a few.

The blend of Web and smartphone technology preserves the essential restriction — the discount is offered only to those who have gone to some trouble to get the coupon. But it makes coupon clipping, or “coupon clicking,” appealing to more consumers.

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