Who doesn’t love a good bargain, especially during these tough economic times? Since their inception in 1887, coupons have acted as a mutually beneficial tool – savings for the consumer and effective advertising exposure for the retailer. Coca-Cola Company catapulted the popularity of their namesake beverage by distributing complimentary coupons – a new and innovative advertising technique at the time. According to Wikipedia, an estimated one in nine Americans received a free Coca-Cola between 1894-1913, and the soda went from being an “insignificant tonic” in 1887 to being served in every state of the United States by 1895. Clearly, they were on to something.
Coupons have maintained their popularity and are estimated to generate nearly 3 billion dollars each year in transactions for consumer packaged goods within the U.S. alone. However, retailers today have new challenges thanks to the Internet that their predecessors were spared; a common problem today is the fraudulent sharing of coupons and coupon codes online.
One recent example of this involved fast food chain Carl’s Jr. The company planned a promotion at a LA Lakers’ game, where 276 winning contestants were texted a passcode and a time-sensitive URL on the Lakers’ website that listed out participating locations honoring the free burger prize. Within a day, the passcode and URL hit hundreds of websites dedicated to sharing discounts, and the burger chain posted signs on their doors, alerting the public they would no longer be giving away their free $2.75 “Famous Star” hamburger to winners. A spokeswoman for Carls’ Jr. said, “We’re wanting things to go viral, just not free offers.” She also said that would be the first and last attempt to give away food in that manner.
On a personal note, I too came across the impact of fraudulent sharing of coupons via the Internet. Inkubook.com is a great, user-friendly site that allows you to quickly create beautiful scrapbooks with much less effort than their traditional counterparts require. I had ordered a scrapbook for my husband for Christmas, highlighting the best pictures of our recent honeymoon. To my dismay, the book was delivered well beyond the assured shipment window of 5-12 days and didn’t make it under our tree. After a few emails inquiring on my book’s status, I was sent a note apologizing for the delay, acknowledging that many holiday gifts were likely missed due to their back log of orders, and offering a coupon code for a free book to make it up to those receiving that email. I eagerly planned another book, but found the code invalid when I checked out a few weeks later. I received the following reply from their customer service rep, “We were forced to inactivate this coupon early due to fraudulent use after it being posted on the internet for everyone to use. If you are ready to order a book using this code I will place the order for you if you could let me know which book you want to order and the address to ship it to. We are very sorry for the inconvenience this causes legitimate users such as yourself but felt we had no other option. “ I was able to get my free book since I had the original email as proof that I qualified, but clearly the company wasn’t expecting others to share the love with the whole world wide web.
Out of curiosity after reading several similar stories, I googled “online coupon codes” and received 5,960,000 results. One site, Retailmenot.com, exclaims, “Find and share coupon codes and promo codes for great discounts at thousands of online stores!” Clearly the idea has caught on and people are looking for deals they may or may not qualify for normally – and looking to share those they know about. You can even become a fan of the site on Facebook, further spreading the word and helping coupons go viral.
The question remains how retailers are to deal with this issue. Some have stopped accepting printable coupons, since there is often no assurance that the person actually qualified for the coupon or hasn’t printed out another copy before. However, in this economic climate it’s hard to deny that consumers will look favorably on retailers that offer coupons, and that these offers are as powerful of an advertising tool as ever. As the Internet only continues to dominate most people’s day-to-day lives and act as their foremost resource, retailers must discover a way to embrace the Internet and its ability to spread the word without becoming overwhelmed by coupon fraud.