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Coupons: Quit snipping, start clicking

Coupons at the supermarket

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: We've all responded to the slumping economy with a little belt-tightening.

One trend that's really on a tear is couponing. In fact, just in case you haven't marked your calendar, September is National Coupon Month.

But this is not your mother's coupon strategy. Marketplace's Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.


Janet Babin: Let me tell you about Dan Griffin. Young guy. Owns a house -- Morrisville, North Carolina. MBA grad. Website operator. Avid coupon cutter.

Dan Griffin: When I'm buying canned veggies for 15 cents, 20 cents or hot pockets for a dollar a box, you can't beat that.

Griffin can't pass up a good deal. We head to his garage freezer to see all the bargains that didn't fit in his kitchen fridge.

Babin: I guess you didn't pay full price for that BMW either, right?

Griffin: No.

Griffin: This is the freezer, so some more of those Fresehettas, more Jolly Green Giant stuff, Breyer's Ice Cream...

Griffin knows that when it comes to coupon cutting he breaks the mold.

Griffin: I joke around that it's me and every stay at home mom in Morrisville at Harris Teeter at 7 in the morning.

But it seems a lot of couponers don't fit the old stereotype anymore. With prices on an Everest-like ascent, more of us are using coupons, and instead of clipping them from the paper, we've begun to get them online.

Bob Cohen is CEO of Scarborough Research. He says more than half of all couponers still get their deals out of the Sunday newspaper, but internet coupon use is catching up -- fast.

Bob Cohen: The greatest growth we saw, at least on a relative basis, has been for internet coupons, which is still relatively low -- it's 11 percent of all households -- but it's virtually doubled, 6 to 11 percent since 2005.

Online coupons are all over the web: on product websites like colgate.com for toothpaste deals, or on coupon sites like freshdeal.com.

The sites have been around for awhile. Steven Boal founded Coupons.com back in 1998. That's the same year Google became a company.

It's not quite as popular as the search engine yet, but Coupons.com now has more than 800 clients, including the biggies like General Mills and Johnson and Johnson. Boal says he helps them attract a new audience.

Steven Boal: You're reaching a younger demographic and slightly more affluent and so you're reaching an audience that really is a marketer's sweet spot: somebody that's willing to engage with their products and then continue to buy them over their lifetime.

Sure, companies realize that now, but initially, internet coupons were a hard sell. Then something clicked last September. Boal says suddenly, coupons for everyday products like milk, bread and cereal got hot.

Boal: We saw a 50-percent increase in the use of those offers.

The growth trend continues today, fueled by the economic downdraft. Not only are consumers more interested in online coupons; many log on to their own local deal websites.

Our couponer Dan Griffin created a site called SavvyDollar.org that now gets more than 40,000 visits per month.

Griffin: We have one member who takes it upon herself weekly to say, "Here's the deals from the circular paired with the coupons that have been in the past couple months, therefore, here are your best deals for the week."

Local coupon sites are cropping up all over the web. They can offer a sense of community that larger sites can't. Griffin says message boards at his site are filled with hyper-local info you can't find anywhere else, like:

Griffin: "I went to the Harris Teeter on such and such a road and they're totally out of veggies, but I then went here and they got tons of them. They just restocked so go there instead."

For Griffin, cutting coupons is more about the thrill of the deal than about making ends meet. But he says he saves an average of 60 percent off retail on groceries.

As the credit crunch and rising prices affect a wider circle of us, coupon use will probably keep growing at a fast clip.

In Morrisville, North Carolina, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace Money.

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