Monday, April 2, 2012

The Downside of Our Coupon Culture

I have a friend who is an unapologetic coupon whore.  As soon as her inbox is filled with emails listing the Deals of the Day, she's off to the races, snatching up anything that catches her eye.  It doesn't matter if she has to drive across town for a massage.  It doesn't sway her if a restaurant is rated as mediocre at best.  As long as she gets a bargain-that is her objective. 

I was a tad late in joining the coupon craze.  By nature I am not really into the hunt for the bargain.  I don't bulk shop. I don't have a membership to Sam's Club, Big Lot's, or Costco.  I shop locally for everything I can, and when I do shop online, it's generally on websites such as www.etsy.com.  In other words, I'm willing to spend more in order to support local businesses and entrepreneurs.  But let's face it, when the coupon craze first began our economy was-and pretty much still is-in the crapper, so the idea of finding ways to pamper oneself at a discount was highly appealing.  I signed up for the most popular of the websites: Groupon, Buy With Me, and Living Social.  Soon my husband and I were regularly dining over candlelight while handing over a printed sheet of paper when the check came around. 

I noticed from the start I was not as comfortable with this as others seemed to be.  While I strive, to a fault, to help people save money, I never want to feel like I'm taking hard-earned cash out of someone else's pocket.  To this day, I feel (and I can tell my husband does as well) icky as I hand over coupons.  I find I have to keep them face down, or better yet, fold them up. 

My interest in this phenomenon waned quickly.  I closed both my Buy With Me and Living Social accounts because the offers were rarely things I wanted.  When I did buy coupons, more often than not I endured flimsy massages, sloppy pedicures, and bland meals.  After a while, I cringed every time a friend said, “I have a coupon.  Let's go there!”

I think our coupon culture ultimately damages, rather than helps our economy, and here's why.

 Quantity over Quality

When one's main objective is to find a bargain, any real interest in quality goes out the window.  As a small business consultant one of my primary clients is a Pilates studio.  Now, allow me a moment to brag because I feel very proud for the role I have played in making this studio the amazing company that it is.  Having been around for well over a decade, it is award-winning, and the staff has a combined teaching experience of almost fifty years.  The studio offers an intimate setting with small group classes and private sessions.  It specializes in modified, rehabilitative care.  In other words, this is a high-quality team providing a high-quality experience in a high-quality space.  The studio doesn't offer coupons (even though the major coupon websites have begged them to join in) because they don't have to.  Yet, it is amazing to me how often a newcomer's response to the information I have provided about the studio is, “Well, I think I'll just go use a bunch of my coupons at other places.”  Forget the fact we are talking about one's body and that less than stellar instruction can lead to injury.  It doesn't seem to matter that their health and safety may be at stake, as long as they've saved a few bucks.

What consumers forget is that there is a reason businesses offer incentives.  I say this not to suggest that a coupon automatically means there is something wrong, but given the breakdown of earnings between the websites and the companies they represent (most coupon websites get 40-60% of the income), and the often ridiculous reductions being offered, there has to be a pretty darn good reason behind the decision to offer such a deal in the first place. 

As our society becomes progressively more focused on saving money, quality in service, materials, and craftsmanship get compromised.  I can't tell you how often lately I have discussed this with others.  It is apparent quality has gone downhill, and even brands that used to be reliable are no longer providing the service and product they once did.

Breakdown in Community

In the past everyone shopped for goods and services in their neighborhood.  Because of this, relationships were developed and the community was strengthened.  When you buy a coupon for a spa that is miles away from your home, how realistic is it that you will become a repeat customer?  Coupon Whores jump from one business to the next based on their purchased deals, and most never intend to return once the coupon has been used.

Supporting Local Business Versus The Coupon Culture

So, how do we reconcile the two?  It is possible.  Here are a few tips:

Become a Savvy Shopper
Instead of looking for any deal, anywhere, look for deals at businesses where you are already a customer.  I only buy coupons for businesses I frequently visit, or I buy coupons from companies I have been interested in checking out.  As a result, when I hand over my coupon I tell the staff I purchased the deal because I appreciate them and am a repeat customer (or I intend to become one), which makes them very happy.

Slow Down
If you can't find a deal, research the business' website or contact them directly to see if they are offering a special.  It is far more affordable for a company to create their own incentives.  For example, the Pilates studio I mentioned regularly offers discounted packages and promotions.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I offered an online coupon deal of 51% off my original artwork and limited edition merchandise.  However, to avoid the superficiality of most coupon websites, I offered this deal through Save Local, a website that only contacts a company's current client base.  I viewed the coupon as an opportunity to thank my customers for their continued patronage and loyalty.  And several appreciative customers bought the coupon.

Remember, You're Still Spending Money
I am grateful for the experiences I have had because of some of the coupons I have bought.  Over the past few years my husband and I have had memberships to historical societies and museums.  We have had great date nights. But in order to ensure I don't get carried away, whenever a new email comes in with the latest offers, I sit on it for a day or so before purchasing.

People get swept up in the thrill of the deal, forgetting that they are still spending money, more than likely on an item they had no intention of buying that day.  These coupon websites make their money on impulse purchasing.  This is why, on average, 25% of the coupons purchased never get used. 

Before buying, if you haven't used the company before, I highly recommend you use websites like www.Yelp.com to find out how they are rated.  Often I will be interested in a coupon until I read poor reviews.  You are a savvy consumer when you spend money on a product or an experience you know will be high quality, rather than just shooting in the dark.