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How Companies Make Mistakes With Coupons

Small Print, Exclusion, Embellished Slogans Can Backfire on Retailers


We've all seen the coupons that read something like, "Get 20% Off the Entire Store,” and we jump in our cars and head off to take advantage of such incredible savings. We shop every aisle, head to the cashier, only to be told that almost everything we selected is listed in small print as an "exception" and we do not get the 20 percent off.

Generally when a coupon is turned down under those circumstances we feel cheated, maybe a bit conned and we tend to lose trust in the store. So why do retailers do it if it gets shoppers confused and angry?

There are two main reasons why retailers list exclusions on coupons.

  • Terms of Agreements
    First, retailers often enter into agreements with popular name-brand companies which include that the merchandise purchased will not be promoted within a certain time span, sold under the suggested retail price dictated by the wholesaler, or must meet the criteria for what is considered an acceptable promotion by the manufacturer.

  • Maintaining Profits
    The retailer creates a coupon for the main purpose of moving out-of-season and slower selling merchandise and does not want to sacrifice the profit on its top-selling current merchandise.

And why should they? If a particular line of clothing is really hot and selling like crazy at full-price, is it a wise decision on the retailer’s part to include that line in the coupon? What about new items that just made it to the selling floor? Should the retailer sacrifice the profit on the item before getting a good handle on the customers' reaction to it?

Probably not. But I'm not letting them off the hook that easily. Responsible retailers will not try to falsely bait customers with blanket messages boldly printed on their coupons then slyly list a ridiculous amount exclusions in small print.

The more respectful and consumer-friendly stores make the main message of the coupon clear and to the point without embellishing the coupon's value.

Does Complaining Help?

It may help to complain when you are actually in the store and face-to-face with the store management, however if you are ordering online, you may not be as fortunate. Generally people taking complaints over the phone are less likely to bend the rules. If you ask to complain to the next level of management do not be surprised if you are told that there is no other level.

A recent post at consumerist.com, a popular whistle-blowers site, outed a well known sporting goods store that listed over 74 brands and categories which were exclusions to a coupon it was giving for 20 percent off a single item.

In a related article a self-proclaimed ex-manager from the company said, "The coupons are always a sham. There is always a series of exclusions (the brands people want, such as Under Armour, high-end Nike product, high-end ski and snowboard equipment, etc). Complain to a manager and they'll usually take the discount."

How to Avoid Being Disappointed by Exclusions on Coupons

  • When you are planning to use a coupon that you have received either in an email, posted on a website or one you received in regular mail, always take the time to read it completely, especially the small print.

  • If you are unclear as to what items are included in the promotion call your local store and ask the store manager. If you plan to use it online, call the customer service number and ask for clarification.

  • If you know what you plan to purchase, keep the customer service representative on the phone until you process your transaction and see that the coupon code you entered was accepted. If it does not go through, ask the employee to process the transaction over the phone.

  • If you are in a store with a coupon that lists several exclusions, try to team up with a sales associate and have them help you select the promotional items. If you run into a problem when you go to check out, your chances of them making an exception and giving you the discount are greater if an employee told you the coupon was good on the item you selected.

What About Coupons Discontinued Before the Expiration Date?

Promotions and coupons can end at any time, even when an expiration date is listed. This mostly happens when companies are caught off-guard with a coupon that circulates around the Internet. If the company only intended the coupon to go to specific people and it gets posted for anyone to print, the promotion could be halted. Companies allot so much money for promotions and if the amount begins to exceed beyond what they planned for, they can discontinue the coupon at any time. It is one of the many things often written on the bottom of the coupon in small print.

Complaining to store management sometimes works, but they are not obligated to give the discount. Hardcore couponers will argue that the company should have the right controls in place to avoid a situation where they have to discontinue a coupon before its stated expiration date.

The Bottom Line - Is It Worth the Hassle?

A good solution when dealing with stores that constantly issue coupons which are confusing and often contain more exclusions than not is to shop somewhere else. Shopping is supposed to be enjoyable and finding a good deal is always fun. Going home with battle-fatigue because you had to fight to figure out the terms of a coupon is the perfect way to ruin a great day.

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