There’s a kind of missionary zeal about Beverley Fenton of Saint John, New Brunswick. Faced, like most Canadians, with spiraling food bills, she suddenly became a born-again consumer last summer when she heard about Mary Anne Hayes, a Lakehurst, New Jersey, housewife who managed to shave hundreds of dollars from her grocery budget simply by cashing in on the coupon and refund offers stores and manufacturers regularly make.
Since then, having successfully mined the supermarket shelves herself, she has started a coupon exchange club— your cat food for my tomato soup—and Fenton has also launched a mini-campaign to tell others about her good fortune. After spreading the word recently on Saint John radio station CFBC’s phone-in show, she received 52 calls from intrigued listeners. “I don’t buy anything unless there’s a refund or coupon on it,” she says. “I figure if it’s a way of cutting down on grocery bills, I’m going to do it.”
What Fenton has discovered is a marketing technique that in the United States has blossomed into a $6-billion business. To persuade consumers to sample new products or switch allegiance from old ones, manufacturers— and sometimes stores—offer cash-off coupons or refunds. Usually they range from a few pennies off up to refunds of a
dollar or more and apply to such items as canned and packaged foods, soaps, toothpaste, diapers and sanitary products. Most shoppers ignore the offers— or at least dabble in them only tentatively—but for those who pursue them ardently, the rewards can be spectacular. New Jersey’s Mary Anne Hayes, for example, has become the belle of the coupon set, a legend in the supermarket aisles, by saving $2,500 in coupons and refunds last year. “I have a family of four,” she told Maclean's. “When I go shopping I bring back $60 or $70 worth of groceries each week, but when they subtract my refunds, it only costs me $10.” A New York City woman, Susan Samtur, has also won renown for having once secured $130.18 worth of groceries on a cash outlay of just $7.07 and another time $117.84 for $17.97.
Such bonanzas aren’t possible in Canada—the offers aren’t as plentiful or as generous as in the U.S. Still, Fenton estimates she saved $90 with coupons and refunds between August and December last year and feels that if more Canadians got interested in refunding, manufacturers would inevitably expand the offers. “People just don’t realize they’re throwing money away,” she says.
Nevertheless, a publication called Budget Boo$ter, started last fall by two staffers of The Moncton Transcript, is aimed precisely at telling Canadians that, as last October’s first edition put it, “they have a gold mine in their
kitchens in the form of box tops and labels.” The monthly, which this month becomes a newsletter available only by subscription, lists refund offers, free recipes and helpful-hint books, contests and advice on such disparate topics as hair care and frozen foods. Of the current refund potential in Canada, Editor Anne Leslie says: “I think if you had the information at hand and kept all the money you got back, you could probably save $250 to $300.”
There’s a definite market for Leslie’s newsletter—if one started in the U.S. last year by Mary Anne Hayes is any indication. Her Dollars Daily has grown from 100 copies sent out to friends to a monthly circulation of 50,000.
While most housewife-refunders are seeking direct savings on groceries (a need emphasized by the Consumer Price Index, which shows food costs up a full two per cent in January), there are variations on the game. Gloria Savoie, a Moncton grandmother, has for years used refunds to buy the postage stamps that fuel her penchant for entering contests. Savoie has won three color TV sets, about $2,000, trips, a bicycle and a cornucopia of lesser household items.
So what does it take to be a big-league refund-player? Patience in shopping, says Anne Leslie, and a willingness occasionally to swear off brand-name allegiances and experiment with new and different products. But don’t, she cautions, buy something you wouldn’t use just to get the refund: that defeats the purpose. Most importantly, the refunder must become a diligent collector of labels, box tops, even whole packages against the day when the right offer comes along. In her case, says Leslie,
“my garbage output has decreased by two-thirds.” Which produces one more ft benefit: “I’m a great recycler.”
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