The Vons supermarket chain is taking scissors to its double coupon policy.
The division of Safeway Inc. has eliminated double coupon redemptions at about 200 supermarkets in Southern California in recent months and plans to kill the promotion at the remaining 100 stores in its core market of Los Angeles and Orange counties this spring.
That's bad news for Kathy Makowski, an Irvine grocery maven whose children roll their eyes when she starts talking about coupons. Coupons slice more than $100 a week from the family of four's grocery bill. On one recent shopping expedition, Makowski saved $199.09 through coupons and store promotions.
Once the change takes effect, Makowski will take her business from the Vons she goes to in Irvine to a local Ralphs that she also visits frequently and which still doubles coupons. She expects many other hard-core coupon clippers to do the same.
"There are lots of people who save more than I do," Makowski said.
Vons spokeswoman Sandra Calderon acknowledges that the grocer's customers include an avid group of coupon users. But, she said, "a vast majority of our customers don't use double coupons."
The supermarket chain plans to use the money it saves from dropping the double-coupon promotion on other types of sales, including additional targeted mailings, more 10-for-$10 promotions of packaged goods and more discounts for users of its Vons Club card.
"That's something that never expires; you don't have to clip anything to get the discount," Calderon said. "It's a fairer way for all shoppers to take advantage of discounts."
Vons also has launched a store remodeling program to make its markets more attractive to customers. The changes include hardwood flooring in the produce section and the addition of full-service deli butcher counters, Calderon said.
He said the decision to end double coupons was gradual. Two years ago, Vons halted the promotion in Las Vegas as an experiment and discovered that "customers preferred a wider price-saving strategy."
Among the major chains in Southern California, only Kroger Co.'s Ralphs chain still offers double coupons, though it is limiting the ability of shoppers to obtain double savings when they are buying more than one of the same item.
"Double coupons are something that our customers expect and now will be just one more reason for them to choose Ralphs over the competition," Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil said.
O'Neil said Ralphs was picking up customers in San Diego and south Orange County, where Vons has already changed its coupon policy.
"Clearly, Vons is looking for its club card to be more effective for them, but it remains to be seen if this will work the way they expect," said John Karolefski, spokesman for the Assn. of Coupon Professionals, a Des Plaines, Ill., trade group of retailers, packaged good manufacturers, processors and coupon industry vendors. "If this works, other retailers will follow the same model," he said.
Nationally, about half of all supermarket chains allow shoppers to double the value of a manufacturer's coupon, said Teri Gault, chief executive of Santa Clarita-based subscription website TheGroceryGame.com, which matches coupon publication dates with grocery store pricing. Consumers use the data to devise weekly shopping strategies that take advantage of the best prices, factoring in coupon use.
Although Safeway is changing its policy in the state, the Pleasanton, Calif.-based company continues to double the value of manufacturers' coupons at most of its stores in other regions, Gault said. Cincinnati-based Kroger also doubles coupons at most of its chains nationally, she said.
Vons' move comes as coupon redemption continues to decline. Americans took 3 billion coupons to retailers last year, a 33% drop from 2000, according to NCH Marketing Services Inc., a Deerfield, Ill.-based coupon processor. At the same time, the average coupon value has risen from 79 cents to 89 cents.
One reason for the redemption slide is a change by manufacturers in coupon terms, said Charles Brown, vice president of marketing for NCH. Companies are offering more coupons that require a shopper to purchase two or more of the same item to achieve savings, and "that's reduced the attractiveness" to many consumers, he said.
People also seem less inclined to page through newspapers for coupons, Karolefski said.
At one time, virtually all coupons were delivered in the midweek food sections and Sunday advertising inserts of newspapers. But that has dropped to 88% of the business and is falling. Moreover, those coupons account for less than two-thirds of all redemptions, Karolefski said. In-store coupons -- which come attached to packaged goods or are dispensed on the grocery aisle or at the checkout counter -- make up 12% of all coupons and account for 37% of redemptions.
"I am not saying that inserts are going away, but it is clear that coupon distribution is shifting," Karolefski said.
Internet coupons will grow more quickly as retailers and manufacturers become more comfortable with the technology, Gault said.
Makowski isn't ready to jump to the Net for coupons, instead preferring to browse through newspapers.
"It's just more convenient," she said.
On Saturday, Makowski used coupons to help feed more than 30 people at Friendship Shelter Inc. in Laguna Beach. The shelter served tostadas with rice, beans, lettuce and soda -- all obtained free by Makowski through the use of double coupons at Vons and Ralphs.
"It's just a lot of fun to do something like that," she said. "For me, it really is a grocery game."