Move to digital coupons costs shoppers
At a time when consumers are especially focused on saving money at the supermarket, some shoppers — those who are tech-challenged or digitally unconnected — are unable to access “digital only” sale prices advertised in weekly store circulars.
For decades, supermarkets have offered lower prices on certain items to members of their loyalty rewards programs, which require a phone number to join. Those discounts are featured in the weekly circulars and on shelf tags.
Now, the industry is moving into digital marketing by advertising in their circulars sale prices that require internet access.
To get these digital deals, the customer must go online or use the store app to “clip” the digital coupons or offers they want and load them onto their account before they shop.
George, a senior who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., and shops at Ralphs (owed by Kroger, the fourth-largest grocery chain in the U.S.) admits to being tech-challenged — and he doesn’t like being left out.
“I only have a flip phone and wouldn’t know how to download that stuff if you paid me,” George told Washington Consumers’ Checkbook. “I don’t appreciate being a second-class citizen, especially when this affects people like me, who really need these discounts the most.”
In the past, George said, the cashier would let him have the digital-only discounts, but not anymore. “If that isn’t discrimination, tell me what is,” George said.
(Kroger did not respond to our requests for comment.)
At some stores, digital coupons for in-store purchases are available on dozens of items, including meat, fish and poultry. The savings can be significant — often 50 cents to $1 off, sometimes more.
A growing problem for many
Consumer World, a consumer advocacy website, checked weekly circulars at more than 50 supermarkets across the country in June, including Acme, Albertsons, Food Lion, Fred Meyer, Jewel-Osco, Kroger, Ralphs, Safeway, Shaw’s, and Stop & Shop, and found that two-thirds of them advertised digital-only discounts.
“Digital discounts are no deal for millions of shoppers, especially seniors and low-income individuals who don’t have online access, a smartphone to use the store app, or simply can’t follow the cumbersome online procedure, even if they do have the proper technology,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder and publisher of Consumer World.
“They are a clever ploy by big supermarket chains to get people into the store, knowing full well that many of them will wind up paying more than the advertised price.”
Two surveys by the Pew Research Center in 2021 documented how many older and lower-income Americans don’t have the technology so many of us take for granted:
—Based on age: 39% of those 65 and older don’t own a smartphone, and 25% don’t use the internet.
—Based on income: Almost a quarter (24%) of the adults in households with incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone. About four-in-10 don’t have home broadband services (43%), or a desktop or laptop computer (41%).
Suzie, a senior shopper on the East Coast, uses coupons to stretch her food budget, but said she can’t take advantage of digital discounts because she can’t get the store app to download in her phone. “They’re awful,” she said.
Suzie told Checkbook she suspects many older shoppers see the digital-only price in the store ad or on a shelf tag and assume they’re getting that great deal simply by having a loyalty card. Yet you have to have a smartphone that can scan the bar code on the shelf tag to get the discounted price; otherwise, you’ll pay $3 more.
“How many people see $1 off and assume it’s going to come off the price at the register, not realizing they need to have downloaded a digital coupon? I mean, it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Why is this happening?
The new technology lets companies better track and understand their customers. And many shoppers like digital discounts, even if that means the store and manufacturer can collect more data about them.
So why provide savings that some customers cannot access? Checkbook asked the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an industry trade group representing manufacturers and retailers.
“Grocers offer their customers options for getting deals both online and in-store,” said Heather Garlich, a senior vice president at FMI.
“We’re meeting 100 million households where they are, and how they shop, several times a week.”
Digital coupons do two things for retailers, Garlich told Checkbook: “They create process improvements at retail, and they reduce fraud.”
Whatever the business justification, digital-only coupons foster the digital divide because they don’t provide savings to every customer. Some in the industry are willing to acknowledge that.
“Coupons are a great way for people to save money and for manufacturers to move product, but we need to be careful not to leave anyone behind,” said Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corporation, a nonprofit created by the industry to fight coupon fraud.
Seniors recognize the need for new technology, but Patty David, director of personal fulfillment at AARP, wants companies to invest in “age-inclusive designs” that ensure what’s developed can be used by everyone.
“It’s right to want equal treatment, and it’s right to want to make sure that you have access to things,” David told Checkbook.
“Companies need to be aware of all ages and what their capabilities are, and make sure that whatever they’re designing for…it’s an age-inclusive design.”
It’s only just begun
The use of digital-only offers featured in weekly circulars (separate from any manufacturer’s coupons available on the supermarket’s website) appears to be accelerating, according to Consumer World’s supermarket survey.
In some cases, the number of digital-only discounts doubled or tripled in June 2022 compared to the same week last year.
“With inflation at a 40-year high, it’s time to stop discriminating against the digitally disconnected, particularly seniors, and offer them the same discounts already enjoyed by tech-savvy shoppers,” Dworsky said.
Some supermarkets have not adopted digital-only deals, many are using them sparingly, and some have created offline alternatives, Dworsky noted.
A few chains, such as Albertsons and Giant Food, use “clip or click” coupons in their weekly ads in some locations. This gives customers the option to choose how to redeem their coupons.
Albertsons, the country’s fifth-largest supermarket chain, which operates more than 2,200 stores in 34 states, including Safeway, Vons and Acme, told Checkbook that customers who do not have access to digital coupons can present the ad to the cashier and get the discount(s) at the register. A Checkbook undercover shopper tried it at a Safeway store in the Seattle area, and the clerk gave her the discount.
Dworsky told us he’s called supermarkets around the country, including those owned by Albertsons, and found that it’s hit or miss whether a store will provide the digital discounts without going through the online procedure.
“That’s a real problem,” Dworsky said. “Supermarkets must recognize that millions of their shoppers are not technology savvy and may be on fixed incomes. All the chains should offer a simple offline alternative so those folks can take advantage of the advertised savings.”
What can you do about it?
Is there anything shoppers can do about this? There seem to be two options: Complain to the corporate office of the store or switch to a supermarket that doesn’t use digital-only coupons.
It’s not your imagination. Manufacturers are cutting back on coupon promotions, both paper and digital, especially for food, according to the mid-year report by Kantar, a marketing consulting firm. The most notable decline was for cereal coupons. The face value of food coupons, both digital and print, also dropped.
Where is this headed? No way to tell. Many brands that have pulled their print coupons are slowly moving to digital.
As The New York Times reported recently, unlike paper coupons, digital coupons can be “personalized and aimed at specific demographic profiles.”
Digital coupons also link to the shopper’s supermarket loyalty card, so it’s easy to tell if that coupon did its job and got the customer to switch brands.
Herb Weisbaum is a contributing editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get great service and low prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.
Beacon readers can view Checkbook’s ratings and advice free for 30 days via Checkbook.org/promo/beacon. Also, check out the Consumerpedia podcast for more consumer news you can use at https://consumerpedia.org.