Using digital coupons to make money on your supermarket trips

02/23/2014 10:52 AM

02/23/2014 10:52 AM

Lorrie Lane gets paid to shop for her groceries.

Using her smartphone and digital coupon technology, the North Raleigh, N.C., microbiologist estimated she made more than $600 buying groceries last year – all the more remarkable given that the money added up 50 cents and $1 at a time.

And that’s on top of the money Lane, 52, saved by redeeming paper coupons the old-fashioned way.

Welcome to the new world of couponing in which legions of shoppers are clipping, clicking and swiping their way to saving money – and making money – while purchasing ordinary grocery and drugstore items.

“It adds an element of fun,” Lane said of her digital couponing, which took off in December 2012 when she purchased her smartphone.

Digital coupon tools vary, but here’s a basic how-to:

Purchase a qualifying product and snap a photo of your receipt. Upload it using a free smartphone app. Once you’ve saved a certain amount – ranging from $5 to $20 – it’s time to cash out and start over.

“You can see how quickly your savings tally up,” said Lane, who deposits her digital earnings in a “slush fund” she keeps at her credit union for emergencies.

The newest of the digital coupon tools to emerge is Checkout 51, which launched last month and already has more than 15,000 Facebook fans and at least one mention by network television.

The Canadian-based firm joins Ibotta, ReceiptHog, SavingStar and other digital ventures that pay consumers to shop, although the method of payment varies. Some pay in gift cards; others deposit money in Paypal accounts. Checkout 51 mails its shoppers a check.

Cheap way to create buzz

The digital coupons mostly mirror their paper counterparts, offering money back on packaged goods. But digital coupons seem to be leading the way with offers on fresh foods. Current digital coupons include rebates for buying milk, eggs, blueberries and red leaf lettuce.

Consumers such as Lane aren’t the only ones who like these digital offers, according to John Morgan, executive director of the Association Of Coupon Professionals, which is based in Drexel Hill, Pa.

The retailers like them because they don’t have to wait to be reimbursed by the manufacturer. The fact that digital coupons don’t hinder checkout times is also a plus. “Retailers don’t want anything to slow down the lane,” Morgan said.

For manufacturers, digital coupons are a relatively inexpensive way to create buzz about their products. It’s also worth noting that manufacturers are even bigger winners if shoppers buy the products but forget to upload their receipts and collect their cash.

The savviest of shoppers, however, are using paper and digital coupons in combination to create blockbuster deals that can effectively double, triple or quadruple the value of discounts and rebates.

“It’s sort of become a game,” Lane said. Completely free grocery items and cash back are the prizes – to the amazement of her husband and children. “He looks at me and just shakes his head (and says), ‘I can’t believe they paid you to get all this.’ ”

‘Collateral damage’

Morgan said manufacturers are aware of deal stacking and view it as “collateral damage” as they experiment with new ways to reach consumers beyond the Sunday newspaper, which still distributes the majority of coupons.

“They’re testing the waters right now,” Morgan said of digital coupons, which account for little more than 2 percent of all redeemed coupons, according to the latest report by Inmar, a Winston-Salem, N.C., firm that measures coupon use. However, digital coupon use is expanding rapidly – an estimated 141 percent growth over 2012, Inmar reported.

Here are a few tips on how to use digital coupons:

•  Most, but not all, digital coupon tools require a smartphone. SavingStar and Checkout 51, for example, can be accessed on a computer or via mobile app.
• Check back often for new offers. Checkout 51 offers expire weekly with new coupons added on Thursday mornings. SavingStar recently added a weekly fresh produce rebate, but most other offers are added near the first of the month.
•  Read the fine print on redemption. Ibotta, Checkout 51 and ReceiptHog all require consumers to snap photos of receipts and upload them. SavingStar does not.
•  Be sure you buy the right product. If a digital coupon is for a 14 oz. bottle of shampoo and you buy the 16 oz. bottle, you’re out of luck.
• Digital coupons may only be used once. In other words, a $1 credit on Red Baron pizza may only be used once – no matter how many Red Baron pizzas you purchased.
•  If you’re squeamish about giving companies access to your contact information and shopping habits, digital coupons might not be for you.

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