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Vons joins Ralphs in capping value of double coupons at $1

August 27, 2008|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

A strategic change in the marketing and pricing policy at Ralphs Grocery Co. in June may have dealt a blow to avid coupon clippers, shoppers said Tuesday.

The Compton-based chain announced in June that it would lower prices on thousands of goods and would retool its loyalty card and coupon programs, ending the ability of shoppers to fully double coupons worth more than 50 cents.

Vons -- one of Ralphs' chief rivals in Southern California -- said at the time that it had no plans to change its double-coupon policy. But last week, Arcadia-based Vons announced that it would match Ralphs in limiting how much coupon clippers could collect from high-value coupons.

"The grocery business is highly competitive and we frequently refine our promotions based on the market," Vons said in a statement. The chain would not elaborate.

Vons is known for its coupon flip-flops. Two years ago, the chain said it was taking a scissors to its double-coupon policy, but it eventually brought back the promotion because of competitive pressures.

According to the new policies of both chains, if a coupon is less than or equal to 50 cents, its value will be doubled. If a coupon is worth more than 50 cents but less than $1, its value will be capped at $1. All coupons worth $1 or more will be redeemed at their face value.

Previously, Vons would double coupons up to a maximum savings of an additional $1. Ralphs would double any product coupon regardless of value. The other major grocery chains in the region don't double coupons.

Ralphs operates 262 supermarkets in Southern California. Including its Pavilions division, Vons has 277 stores in Southern and Central California.

"This protects the stores' profit margins and increases our shopping costs," said Richard Kunz, a Thousand Oaks insurance agent who spends as much as $1,500 a month feeding his family of four -- including two teenage sons.

It also comes at a time when he is relying on coupons to help reduce the effect of food inflation on his family's budget.

"Our food costs are up about 25% from last year," said Kunz, who manages his family's budget.

The ability of Southern California shoppers to double a coupon for more than $1 in savings was actually an anomaly, said Teri Gault, founder and chief executive of TheGroceryGame.com, a Santa Clarita-based online service that for a fee helps consumers optimize savings from coupons.

"It is very unusual," Gault said.

In almost every other market where they operate, Kroger Co., the Cincinnati-based parent of Ralphs, and Safeway Inc., the Pleasanton, Calif.-based owner of Vons, never allow a coupon to be doubled for more than a dollar in store savings, and frequently don't allow any coupon doubling, she said.

That doesn't mean shoppers won't find good deals in the store, the coupon maven said. They may just have to work a bit harder.

For example, Vons recently offered $5 off the purchase of five boxes of breakfast cereal, a deal that was about as good as doubling a high-value coupon after taking into account a volume discount and a $1 manufacturers coupon, Gault said. Altogether, the promotion brought the price of a box of Kellogg's Smart Start cereal down to $1.

"That's a pretty good sale price. You just have to stock up," she said.

An analysis of Ralphs' pricing over the last year also revealed some pretty good deals recently, Gault said.

In May, for example, Ralphs offered a 6-ounce container of Crest Whitening with Scope toothpaste at two for $5. In early August an 8-ounce container of the same toothpaste was on sale at 10 for $10.

But savings in other areas, especially for goods that aren't on sale, are less clear. For example, Ralphs sold a 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade for $1.39 in November, raised the price to $1.79 by February and dropped it back down to $1.39 in late June.

Despite the change in coupon policies, Gault believes that coupons still should remain an important part of a shopper's trip to the grocery store.

"Stockpiling when items are on sale, preferably with a coupon and various other bonus offerings, is the best game plan," she said.

That's the strategy of Ken Basil, a pharmaceutical consultant who lives in Hermosa Beach.

The Vons shopper said he found the reduction in savings from double coupons "troublesome, but at least they are still doubling some, so I guess I still come out ahead."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Discussion

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