Arizona business Lifestyle Marketing

When a Coupon Isn’t a Reward

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on LinkedIn about making customer rewards like coupons worthwhile to customers.

I relayed a story from a friend about a spelling-challenged bakery that had mangled the spelling of her son’s name on his birthday cake. In exchange for their trouble, she got a complimentary mini-quiche and access to an email service that provided free items at local shops. Trouble was, the shops weren’t local to her, and most required her to purchase something before getting the freebie.

Around the same time, my local grocery store began handing out slips labeled “not a coupon” that gave fairly detailed instructions about how to get future coupons. My post questioned the wisdom of making it difficult for customers to use the rewards shops and brands bestow upon them.

Are Coupons Always the Answer to Encourage Brand Loyalty?

Branding is a very important part of marketing. It sets products apart from competitors.

Coupons have long been important marketing strategies for brands. As a consumer, though, I have to question if they are always the answer to promote brand loyalty.

I recently got another “not a coupon” that apparently wants me to carefully track certain purchases in order to qualify for a future register discount. In this case, the point is to encourage General Mills products.

Problem is, I don’t really care which conglomerate manufactures the cereal or granola bars I buy. Like a growing number of consumers, my #1 focus are the ingredients, one in particular: high-fructose corn syrup. I do not buy any products that contain it.

And if a “coupon” like this one restricts me to certain “participating” brands-within-a-brand, I really am not interested in it at all.

I first saw these "not coupons" like this one in 2013.
Coupon confusion isn’t new.

To make it even more confusing, the fine print lists several participating General Mills brands “and many more.” How would I know what ones are participating? I suppose I can rely on the store to tag the participating brands. But is all this planning worth my time and the store’s?

I mean, I do plan my shopping and make a list. I think most people do. And I note on my list certain brands to buy when (1) I have a coupon and (2) I have already vetted the ingredients.

One of this store’s competitors has made it super-easy to use coupons through an app that downloads coupons to my store card. Now that’s convenient.

I call up the app while I’m shopping to make sure I’m buying the right quantity, size, etc. I’m actually more loyal to the store than to any brand other than those I habitually buy because they meet my “standards.”

Not All Brands Issue Coupons

There are a couple of brands that have won my loyalty outside the supermarket. Neither of them issues coupons, at least not as far as I know.

One is Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and slacks. I’m not very comfortable wearing most other brands. But Gloria’s have never let me down.

I’ve worn her clothing for approximately 16 years, which coincides with my son’s birth. Before that, I wore other brands as well. I was despondent until I tried GV. God bless you, Gloria.

I have never received a GV coupon but I do get general discount coupons from the store itself.  Ironically, the same store also supplies the only jeans brand my son wears. However, I have never been alerted to sales for either of these brands. This is interesting. Obviously, I don’t have to buy jeans as often as, say, eggs or orange juice, but you’d think stores would track branded buys, wouldn’t you?

Make Coupons and Customer Rewards Easier to Use

I’ll reiterate an earlier plea for stores and brands to make coupons and other rewards easier to use.

The store where I buy GV sends out general discount coupons pretty often. It also rewards purchases with small dollar-amount coupons that expire within a couple of weeks.

Maybe I’m not a typical shopper. I think I used these two-week coupons just once. I wish the store would extend their coupons’ shelf lives like the grocery stores and grocery brands do.

Here are a few other ideas I’ve heard, some of them from readers:

  • If you’re participating in a “shop local” rewards program, provide a map that shows where each participating store is located. It’s easier for customers and boosts your program by showing how many stores are part of the program.
  • Don’t penalize long-term customers by always refusing to share special offers for new customers with them. Some crafty customers will cancel a magazine subscription, for example, if the renewal is expensive and wait out the time for new customer deals.
  • Give customers more time to use coupons or rewards.
  • If you’re an e-commerce company, offer free shipping as often as possible and not just for first-time customers.

Remember, customer loyalty can’t be taken as a given. Unless your product is truly unique (as GV is for me), your competitors will figure out how to attract your customers.

I’m curious to know what you would like to tell your favorite shop or brand to do to make you even more loyal? Will you share it below?



Be Smart With Coupon Offers

Do you use coupons? I use the ones that are easy on me, like these from Ace. I get them through snail-mail about once a month.

Ace coupons are easy to use within a generous timeframe.
Ace is the place for coupons!

Coupon fans run the gamut from those who check out the coupons from those mailer packets to those with apps on their smartphones and save tens, if not hundreds, of dollars, when they shop.

I once worked at Target and was truly wowed by people who showed up with handfuls of clipped coupons from the Sunday paper. Once, I rang up a couple who saved over $300! I was truly awed although the managers were visibly annoyed.

Coupons endure for merchants and customers. Smart merchants will target (no pun intended) coupons to people who regularly use them and sweeten the deal by making them easy to redeem.

Is Your Coupon Really Special?

A few years ago, a friend in New York put me in stitches with a coupon story.

She went to a neighborhood bakery to order a birthday cake for her eight-year-old son. Upon picking up the cake, she discovered her son’s name was misspelled.

His name isn’t all that unusual. She has excellent handwriting. There’s just no way that someone can read the name “Seth” spelled out in block letters as “Sith.”

I should mention this was around the time a Star Wars movie came out. It introduced us to the Sith, who are not nice beings.

“Velerie” asked to speak with the bakery manager, who was a little embarrassed about the misspelling. She managed to change it without mangling the cake decoration.

She also gave my friend a mini-quiche for her trouble and added her name to a “special” email list where she would receive offers for free samples from several “nearby” establishments.

If you live in New York, nearby means a short walk, or maybe a quick subway ride. It does not mean the other side of town.

My friend lives uptown, near Columbia University, but some of the offers came from stores all the way down town, like in SoHo. The only actual offer in her neighborhood was from the same “bakkery.”

And with one exception, all the “free” samples required a purchase. What’s so special about that?

Don’t Be Stingy With Discounts

One trend I don’t understand is to make customers work for a discount.

In other words, being kind of stingy with coupons. I see this in grocery store brands that offer discounts if  you buy four or five of their products to get the discount.

I certainly understand the idea of brand loyalty. People will be loyal to brands that have products directly related to one another.

For example, iPhone owners will buy an Apple watch. And if you’ve had good luck with a particular brand like KitchenAid, you’ll probably buy another KitchenAid device rather than a Cuisinart.

I’m not so sure this carries over in the grocery store, though. When I jot down that we need ketchup, I already know I want ketchup that doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup. Only a few brands offer this, and they raise their prices to leave out this totally unnecessary ingredient.

A coupon should be easy to use and not require customers to work for it.
This coupon requires customers to work for it.

But why make me buy four more Heinz products to get the discount? Honestly, I’d have to think about other products Heinz makes and whether I need them right now.

Coupons that at least tell you what the manufacturer offers are a little more helpful, like this “non-redeemable” one. It also requires careful date-tracking, making you work twice as hard for a few bucks off. I received this coupon about a month before I could even use it.

Don’t Forget to Reward Existing Customers

One of my pet peeves are rewards for new customers only.

My boyfriend recently decided it’s time to upgrade from his iPhone 4 (don’t laugh) for the iPhone 7 after seeing several ads on TV his provider was running for new customers.

He figured that since he’d been with the provider for several years, he would be able to make a deal. But his provider is apparently blind to loyalty.

So he signed up with another provider, paid a bit more to get the 7 plus, and dumped the old provider.

I’ve had a similar experience with my internet provider. I constantly received cards and emails encouraging me to switch to it to get all kinds of cool services for free. I called to get the freebies and was informed these offers are only for new customers.

I pointed out I had been a loyal customer for eight years. The sales associate agreed. I asked if I could cancel right then, and restart the service to get those great deals. Nope; I’d have to go without for at least three months.

Since there’s really only one other ISP in my area, I swallowed my pride and stayed. But, I did call some months later threatening to switch and was able to get basic cable and the Internet for a lower price.

Sometimes, just asking politely works. A while back I noticed an American Express booth at Costco that was giving away really high-quality insulated coffee cups to people who signed up. I immediately wanted one but I already had the Costco AmEx. I explained this to the guy in the booth who shrugged and handed one over.

“You deserve a reward now and then,” he said.

Show Your Customers Genuine Appreciation

You know who your best customers are. Give them rewards they can use.

Here are some ideas I found from Hubspot and Marketing Donut:

  • Reward each purchase. Walgreen’s awards purchase points you later use at the register.
  • Offer cumulative discounts and allow a reasonable time frame to redeem them.
  • If you ship product, ship for free for orders over a certain amount.
  • Partner with nearby businesses that provide complementary services. If you own a pet store, maybe the groomer down the street would consider entering into a loyalty program with you.
  • Offer discounts on special sales days to customers on your email list.
  • Give away a few free items for multiple or high-cost purchases. Make sure the customer can use the giveaway; if not, offer an alternative or raincheck.

I have a friend who buys her makeup at Macy’s. They keep giving makeup samples that are obviously not for her skin type. She’s too polite to ask for samples that match her skin. But shouldn’t people who sell makeup give her freebies she can use?

Coupons are a great way to attract and retain customers. But if you make them difficult to use, aren’t particularly useful, or exclude current customers, they’ll get tossed into the email or actual trash. Be nice to y0ur customers and offer them coupons and deals they can use.