At the turn of the millennium, coupon use began to slide, from 4.6 billion coupons redeemed in 1999 to 2.6 billion in 2008. Then the recession hit, triggering a coupon resurgence, driven in large part by the Internet, before anybody had even heard of Groupon. Millions of unemployed consumers rediscovered the coupon as a way to generate money—or at least cut household costs—during their idle hours. And retailers responded to flagging sales by invigorating their offers. The value of the average coupon has risen from $1.09 to $1.37 since 2005. Redemptions grew by 27 percent in 2009 alone, with Internet coupons leading the way, rising more than threefold. Online coupons have proven stickier than their paper counterparts, accounting for around 1 percent of all coupons issued but nearly 10 percent of those redeemed. According to Nielsen, the “enthusiast” couponers who use online offers most are likely to be relatively young and high-income, with 60 percent making more than $50,000 a year.
The retail industry is still adjusting to the new generation of coupon shoppers, many of whom aren’t content to limit themselves to one or two deals per trip. Some of these so-called super-couponers have perfected a maneuver called stacking—combining multiple coupons on the same item, generally a manufacturer’s coupon with a retailer’s. Another technique is rolling—using earnings from retail loyalty programs (for example, CVS Extra Bucks) to buy products that earn still more points, generating a continuous flow of extra earnings. The online boards teach all these tricks and more. “Don’t be scared! You can do this!” begins one SlickDeals FAQ, before it launches into a series of links to newspaper coupon-insert schedules, store-by-store coupon acceptance policies, and thousand-line wikis with deals alphabetized by product and coded by state. There are coupon swap threads as well as RAOK (random act of kindness) threads in which coupons are given away to the first user who requests them. Members of “coupon trains” circulate their surplus coupons through the mail, taking what they need and adding what they have. “Coupon fairies” act as anonymous benefactors, bringing extra coupons to the store and leaving them on the applicable products.