Printable Grocery Coupons: A Billion-Dollar Relationship

coupon statisticsPrintable grocery coupons are the digital equivalent of the clip-and-save coupons we’ve been getting in the mail for decades. They also represent big business for retailers, and big savings for consumers.

Over the last few years, the business of printable grocery coupons has exploded in volume. A virtual cottage industry has sprung around the concept of digital couponing.

There’s even a reality show on TLC about “extreme couponers.” Alas, I’m still waiting for them to start a show about real estate bloggers.

Here’s a snapshot of where the digital / printable coupon industry is today, and where it might be headed in the future.

Booming Business: Printable Grocery Coupons

A digital coupon is one that can be obtained online, through a website like Coupons.com. They can also be obtained from the website of a particular store, such as Target.com. They are also referred to as printable coupons, because the consumer can print a hard copy. Consumers search the website for the particular product coupons they want, print them on a home or office computer, and take them to the retail location of their choosing. Ka-ching. Pennies saved.

  • Last year, 305 billion coupons were distributed across the United States.
  • 3.5 billion coupons were redeemed in 2011, an increase of 6.1% over the previous year and 34.6% over 2007. (Source: NCH Marketing Services)
  • Coupon shoppers saved a combined total of $4.6 billion in 2011 (source: NCH). Savings were measured as the difference between the regular retail price and the price attained with the coupon. This figure includes digital / printable coupons, as well as direct-mail and in-store coupons.
  • Digital coupon redemption grew by more than 100% from 2009 to 2010. (Source: ProLogic)
  • Today, there are more than 50 million shoppers in the U.S. who regularly use online / digital coupons. Analysts expect that number to reach 97 million by the end of 2013. (Source: eMarketer.com)
  • In 2011, the average face value (the true amount saved) for grocery coupons was $1.17. (Source: NCH)

When measured annually, printable grocery coupons are a billion-dollar relationship between shoppers and retailers.

Profile of a Digital Coupon Shopper

They use a variety of websites to locate printable coupons. They print the coupons and use them to buy everything from groceries to manicures. They shop more frequently, and spend more, than the average shopper. They are the digital coupon shoppers, and they are legion. Over the last few years, the number of digital “couponers” in the United States has risen significantly.

What do we know about the shopping habits of digital coupon shoppers? A one-year study by the research firm GfK Knowledge Networks revealed the following characteristics:

  • They make 22% more shopping-related trips per year than the average* shopper.
  • They spend 23% more per trip than the average shopper.
  • They spend 49% more per year on shopping than the average shopper.
  • They are stockpilers. People who use digital / printable grocery coupons make nearly 50% more “stock-up” trips than the average shopper.

* An “average” shopper is someone who does not use the printable coupon websites on a regular basis.

There are certain things we can glean from this data, albeit with a touch of speculation. Take the higher number of shopping trips, for example. It is reasonable to assume that those consumers who use printable coupon websites have a stronger incentive to shop. It is the lure of saving money, which can be a strong lure indeed. Advertisers know this, which is why they are spending more on their digital coupon programs.

According to Charlie Brown, Vice President of Marketing for NCH, this market strategy serves two primary purposes:

“Coupons attract new buyers and also build brand loyalty among existing buyers, making the promotion a key tool for brands to both defend and grow market share.”

The bottom line is that digital and printable grocery coupons encourage consumers to shop more frequently, and to spend more money per shopping trip. And that’s exactly what retailers want.

A Brief History of Enticement

The use of grocery store coupons in the United States dates as far back as the stores themselves. In the 1800s, shopkeepers would give handwritten vouchers to their most loyal (and profitable) customers, or make discount notes in their ledger books.

Early coupon from Coca-Cola
Free Coke! One of the first official coupons

Coupons became a standard business practice among product advertisers in the late 1800s, when Asa Candler, a co-founder of Coca-Cola, issued tickets for a free glass of Coke. This put the new beverage into the hands of a much larger audience, and helped Coca-Cola become the corporate juggernaut it is today.

Then came direct mail marketing. This paper-heavy phase of coupon evolution is still very much alive, to the chagrin of environmentally minded consumers. Who among us hasn’t received “clip and save” grocery store coupons in the mail? These marketers often use our shopping histories, income levels, and other bits of demographic intel to deliver highly targeted coupons.

But none of these couponing stages have grown as fast as digital and printable coupons. Over the last few years, this segment has exploded with the advent of new technologies, websites and mobile apps. This latest phase of couponing has changed the way companies promote and sell their goods. Today, websites like Coupons.com attract millions of bargain-hungry shoppers.

smart phone barcode scanner
Modern mobile devices can scan barcodes

Smartphone apps allow shoppers to scan barcodes and download digital coupons on the fly. In many cases, printing is optional. Coupons can be transferred from a website onto a customer loyalty card or mobile device, and then redeemed at the register via swiping or scanning.

Social-media-savvy advertisers are leveraging sites like Facebook and Twitter to allow people to share coupons and discounts with friends.

Going forward, retailers will likely rely more heavily on social media and local search engines to maximize coupon distribution.

Reader Feedback: How Has Couponing Affected Your Bottom Line?

We welcome feedback on this story. Do you use printable grocery coupons on a regular basis? If so, we would love to hear from you. How long have you been couponing? How much money do you think you are saving each month? Please feel free to leave your comments below.