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Tech Talk

Crazy coupon lady goes digital

5/18/2016

There’s something about paying full price that just makes you feel like a sucker. Our impulsive friends push past sticker shock and demand the satisfaction being in on the ground floor of what’s cool. The more prudent among us are willing to wait for a price to drop. tech 5.19But the most impressive shoppers are the ones who buy early but clip their way to a cut fee through coupon clipping and lucrative rebates. Interestingly enough, as the digital age has started to take route, bargain shopping has only grown with rewards programs and coupon applications becoming exceptionally popular.

Even with the decline of paid newspapers, somehow the Sunday editions continue to be popular. The reason is simple — the coupons. For decades the easiest way to find quick discounts was the Sunday paper. Well, if you thought the Internet couldn’t steal anything more from the newspaper industry, guess again. Coupons are just as readily available online, and you don’t need a subscription. But unlike paper coupons that require shoppers to provide their discount upon purchase, digital coupons are more about proof of purchase rebates.

Tens of millions of cost-conscious shoppers are saving hoards of cash through rebate applications like iBotta, Ebates, and Checkout51. Working with retailers and producers, these apps and many more allow users to sift through deals, pick the ones they find interesting, make their purchases, take a few proof of purchase photos and then ultimately get reimbursed either by a check in the mail or online account deposit. If it sounds too easy, it’s because it is. The only real hang-up is the photo-taking piece because it requires users to stay on top of receipts and make sure their purchases line up with the rebates they’ve selected.

There are a few uglier bits of capitalism woven into these rebates. Users like to brag they’ve “saved” or “earned” hundreds in rebate dollars, but much of that money comes from purchases they might not have made without the rebate luring them. For instance, a recent iBotta rebate was for a few specific styles of flavored mayo — think sriracha, thousand island, ranch, buffalo, and caesar to name a few. Each purchase came with a $1 rebate and no purchase limit. So the thrifty shopper might think, “Well, I will eventually eat 5 gallons of mayonnaise. I should load up while this deal lasts.” But who needs that much mayo? And will you get to it before it expires? And don’t you realize you’re spending way more than you would have only for a minor kickback? Sorry, “thrifty” shopper, but you haven’t saved anything. You burned money on the belief of scarcity. That’s economics 101.

The other bit of shopper manipulation is the discovery of an eager audience. Some of these apps won’t just fork over the deal; they also want to poison your tiny shopping mind with ads. If you want that 50-cent coupon on broccoli you discovered in your rebate app, you might first have to sit through 30 seconds to two minutes of advertising. And just like how you shouldn’t shop hungry, you shouldn’t coupon-shop when impressionable. The problem is nearly all couponers are impressionable.

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Are these applications worth it? Only if you use them to cash in on products you already buy and in the quantities you normally consume. Make a shopping list, stick to it, and know that deals are never a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Just like there will be coupons in the next Sunday paper, there will also be more digital rebates tomorrow. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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