The debilitated economy has prompted grocery shoppers who previously pitched their newspaper circulars to scrupulously clip coupons. But this spike in penny-pinching is steering many eaters to highly processed foods and national brands.
Coupon use took a 29 percent leap in 2009, the latest year for which data is available, according to coupon-tracking firm Inmar. Many of those eager clippers stocked their pantries with Jimmy Dean frozen breakfast biscuits, Fritos, and DiGiorno pizzas, all recently listed by popular online coupon-consolidator Couponmom.com as some of the best deals available in the Seattle area.
I first realized how much the coupon craze is influencing eating habits when my brother and his wife recently road-tripped from Michigan to Georgia. As soon as they crossed the sweet-tea belt, I began texting them with restaurant suggestions. I recommended fish camps, barbecue joints, and fried-chicken shacks, all of which I considered fine (and affordable) representations of the region's unique edible culture. They weren't swayed. "We have a coupon from Subway," my brother explained.
While many independent restaurants have experimented with Groupon and similar services, online coupons account for a mere 10 percent of total coupon usage. The vast majority of restaurants and vendors specializing in local, sustainable food can't afford to issue millions of preprinted "$1 off" coupons.
Meanwhile, farmers markets, which are constantly working to position themselves as primary shopping destinations, are just starting to compete on the coupon front. "We're not like a regular retail operation," says Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (NFMA) director Chris Curtis. "Coupons aren't the easiest thing in the world."
Still, the NFMA last year started distributing $2 "market buck" vouchers to promote its markets. The redemption rate in 2010 was an impressively high 50 percent. "We think of them as advertising," Curtis says.
Although this year's print run was scaled back from 5,000 to 2,500 in order to allocate money to the Broadway market's southward move to a location near Seattle Central Community College ("We spent it on real pretty little banners," Curtis says), the NFMA remains committed to the program. "It's a nice idea," Curtis says. "They're good at all of our markets, good for any product."
In addition to using the coupons to match food stamps, the NFMA sticks them in prize packages and sells them as gift certificates. "Sometimes local businesses distribute them," Curtis says. "We just have to figure out the most clever ways to get them out."
In an attempt to reach potential new market shoppers, NFMA last year printed a clip-ready coupon in a Phinney Ridge community newspaper. Shoppers schooled in bologna and Gatorade deals knew just what to do: use them.
"That was very popular," Curtis says.