National retailer Target Corp. for months has been shortchanging its customers who use certain manufacturers' coupons by crediting them for only a fraction of their face value.
Target is calling it a computer glitch. Avid coupon users are calling it an outrage.
"It's just a mess. It makes me not want to go there," said Caroline Jaworski, of Harwood Heights, Ill. Wednesday morning, she said, her $1.50 coupon for two packs of feminine-hygiene products was reduced by the register to $1.02 at the local Target store.
"You really have to watch the registers, and for people who don't, they don't know they're getting ripped off," Jaworski said. "I think this is a serious issue that a lot of people aren't aware of."
Stephanie Nelson, founder of CouponMom.com and author of two books on couponing, said shoppers are supposed to get discounted the full amount for multiple-item coupons. "I've never heard of this happening at any supermarket," she said.
Target says it has been aware of the problem since August.
The Minneapolis-based retailer, which operates about 1,750 stores nationwide, couldn't explain why the problem was happening or why it hadn't been resolved.
"We are aware that some coupons are not scanning for the full amounts," Target spokeswoman Erika Svingen said. "We are aware of the issue and are diligently working on a fix for that and will implement it as soon as possible."
Coupon use soared during the recession. Some 3.3 billion coupons were redeemed in 2009, a 27% increase from the year before, according to coupon research site CouponInfoNow.com.
Maybe most disconcerting to many Target shoppers is that the coupon problem has been ongoing since at least midsummer.
"I don't understand how a national company knows there's an issue but hasn't done anything about it," Jaworski said.
Target has instructed cashiers to check coupons to ensure customers are getting the full value, Svingen said.
"We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused our guests," she said. "Anyone who does not receive the full coupon amount at the register can bring their receipt to guest services for a refund of the difference."
Shoppers complained primarily about coupons that require the purchase of multiple items. Multiple-item coupons make up a quarter of all coupons, according to Inmar Inc., which helps retailers and manufacturers manage coupons.
The glitch appears to stem from a common practice among retailers. Stores won't allow a coupon to reduce the price of an item to less than zero. Otherwise, it would have to pay the customer cash for buying the item. Free is the best they will do, which is also Target's stated policy.
In Target's case, the application of that rule seems to be fuzzy. Consider an example used by coupon expert and blogger Jill Cataldo, who said she's been shortchanged by Target registers eight or nine times in recent months.
"I have no vendetta personally against Target, but it's not fair at all," said Cataldo, adding that she doesn't believe the company is cheating customers intentionally. "Many coupon shoppers are savvy and watch the register like a hawk. But a casual coupon user may not realize it until they're home, or not realize it at all."
Cataldo's example concerns a recent coupon offering $1 off when buying eight containers of Yoplait yogurt. The conventional thinking is that a Target consumer would pay $1 less than the total cost of all eight packages.
But apparently Target's checkout registers, after making sure you bought eight, apply the $1 discount to a single 39-cent yogurt. The computer then apparently figures that the value cannot drop below zero, so just 39 cents is subtracted instead of $1.
Retailers typically submit for reimbursement the face value of coupons. If applied, Target would get $1 from the manufacturer, netting the retailer 61 cents.
That doesn't sound like much money, but it quickly adds up over many different items over hundreds of customers at Target stores nationwide, Cataldo said.
Target had no comment on what will happen to that money.
Kraft Foods, a major issuer of coupons, is "not aware of any issues with redeeming coupons at Target," a spokeswoman said.