Couponing helps consumers save, and helps save newspapers, too

Couponing was a way out of the Great Recession for Cathy Yoder, one of the editors of the Boise, Idaho-based site Fabulously Frugal. Yoder and her partner Monica Knight are profiled in a New York Times Magazine story that posits couponing — or, more accurately, economic activity around couponing — as the “Key to Economic Rebirth.” The Yoders were deeply in debt, and Cathy’s husband Roman lost his job just as the site — which alerts readers to deals, collates coupons with store deals and teaches people how to use coupons better — started to gain traction among consumers.

Fabulously Frugal eventually helped pull the Yoders out of their economic hole. The advertising they took, the couponing classes Cathy Yoder and Knight offered, the 18 months’ worth of tuna Cathy Yoder once stocked up on — they flipped the family’s gender roles as well as its business model. “I’d like to think I’m not so male chauvinistic that I want things traditionally the way they were or should be,” Roman told Amanda Fortini, who wrote the Times piece.

That’s the sort of rethinking newspapers have undertaken since the dark days of 2009, when Poynter’s Rick Edmonds mused about whether for consumers, “some of the adjustments to a tough economy — not eating out at expensive restaurants, cooling it on second home purchases — will become semi-permanent.” Theoretically, newspapers carry ads sensitive to those decisions: More car ads when times are good, more coupons when things are rough.

But even as the overall economy ticks back, consumers are still couponing, and newspapers are still retrenching. Sundays, when preprinted coupons and circulars hit, have been a notable success for newspapers in the past few years. Average Sunday circulation is up 5 percent overall at the 532 newspapers that report to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and coupons are often credited for contributing to those gains.

In an August 2011 profile, J. Freedom du Lac described Southern Maryland coupon expert Kimberly Pepper-Hoctor’s weekly routine:

Of course, she had additional items on her shopping list, a multipage, color-coded spreadsheet created the previous Sunday, as always, after a trip to Panera with her husband, Navy Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Hoctor. They’d brought two copies of the Sunday Washington Post, and for the better part of two hours, while he read, she circled notable deals in the store ads and clipped coupons, which she organized in a red Mead binder divided by product type: paper products, skin care, hair care, eye care, dental, cleaning supplies, cereal, condiments, Mexican, beverages and so forth.

Two copies! The Washington Post has offered a couponer-friendly deal on Sundays at retail outlets: You get two copies of the paper — and more important, two copies of the inserts, for less than buying two copies would cost. (I checked to see if this deal is still available and will update when I hear back.) I found a blog post by one couponer who said she’d struck a deal with the Idaho Statesman that allowed her readers to get five copies of the Sunday paper delivered each week for $17/month. (I’ve asked the Statesman if the deal is still available and will update when I hear back.)

Those double or quintuple-deals juice circulation numbers — the Statesman registered an average circulation gain of 2,603 on Sundays, and certainly people getting five copies of the paper would help with that — but they also represent a way of using a newspaper that doesn’t require much of the expensive and meticulously reported content wrapped around the Target circulars. Employees responsible for those pages have been clipped faster than a stacked deal on Mitchum deodorant as advertising revenue and circulation has declined. And what happens to the remaining people in the newsroom if couponing becomes a less-analog pursuit?

Alan Mutter, who blogs about the newspaper business, says marketers will eventually figure out how to cut newspapers out of their connections to consumers, whether by using the Web, via Facebook or mobile. “Everybody everywhere is connecting digitally,” he says. “In these straitened economic times, they’re using the tools that are available to them.”

Newspapers have responded to the growth of daily deals-type coupons in various ways, by partnering with established players like Groupon or developing their own sites, to varying degrees of success. The Associated Press pushed its iCircular product last fall, an “app within an app” that plonks digital “inserts” into various newspaper’s mobile applications. Edmonds gave the product “an A for collaboration” in an initial review last September but said it wasn’t an “an outside-the-box idea like Craigslist or Groupon.”

Still, it was a start: “A significant presence in smart-phone commerce would count as an important business win for an industry that hasn’t had many lately,” Edmonds wrote. And more of those, however they come, will keep a lot of tuna fish on tables, some of it even purchased at full price.

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