After nearly two decades in decline, the coupon is back.
Thanks to the recession, in 2009 consumers used coupons at a faster clip than they did the year before – the first increase in coupon redemption in 17 years, says a new study by Inmar Inc., a company that processes coupon transactions. Businesses issued 367 billion coupons last year and buyers redeemed 3.3 billion, a 27 percent increase from 2008's 2.6 billion – and the highest usage since Inmar began tracking trends in 1988.
Online coupon access increased 92 percent (Google searches for "printable coupons" and "online printable coupons" more than doubled) and redemption of those Internet deals leaped up 360 percent, although the Internet accounts for only a snippet – 1.5 percent – of all coupons redeemed. Thinking of an online blue light special? Inmar's study suggests 1 in 5 people who receive your Internet coupon will cash in. (How do they measure such a thing? A formula involving page views and the number of times the page is printed.)
Traditional newspaper inserts are still prime territory for bargain hunters – 89 percent of coupons are distributed that way, and the paper vouchers account for more than half of those redeemed at the checkout counter. But digital discounts – often offered through an ever-increasing crop of companies devoted to mobile coupon aggregation – may help you lure new customers. A third of users signed up to one such aggregator, Cellfire, say they've never used a paper coupon, according to Brent Dusing, the company's chief executive. Who's using Cellfire? Sixty percent are women, and the biggest age group is 25 to 34-year-olds. Sixteen percent of users are older than 45.
The Inmar study suggests companies still see the humble coupon – paper or otherwise – as the way to consumers' hearts.
"Brands saw coupons as a key to maintaining brand strength," says Matthew Tilley, director of marketing for Inmar's promotion services division. "If they reduced their promotional presence, they stood to lose sales to lower-priced competitors and store brands – so they doubled down hoping to create brand loyalty once the economic dust settles."
If you're planning to go the coupon route yourself, a primer on trends from Inmar's report: The clip-and-save renaissance forced companies to keep face values down – they declined by a penny to $1.44, a reversal of years of increase. Another change: Expiration periods contracted by 10 percent after years of remaining static.
Are you using coupons? Have you noticed higher redemption rates? What works and what does not? Leave a comment below.