Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting Full on Less Dough: the Hungry Preacher's Guide to Savvy Shopping, PART 4

I know that my last post on retail kickbacks was a lot of fun, and insight into their use should give you much confidence as you head into the battle that is saving money on groceries.  Like the crane kick in "The Karate Kid," of retail kickbacks it can be said, "If do right no can defense."  Once you factor in the training you received in PART 1 and PART 2, you are ready to sign up for--and win--the All Valley Karate Tournament.

Of course, YOU are too ambitious to settle for merely winning the tournament, getting the girl, and driving off in your shiny yellow car.  You're thinking ahead, and crying out, "Wait!  Wasn't the crane kick blocked in 'The Karate Kid Part II'?  Wasn't it the drum technique that ended the fight in THAT movie?  And what about the kata technique in 'Part III'?  I still have so much to learn!  Please teach me, Mr. Miyagi!"

To you, prized pupil, I respond twofold.  First, you probably want to dial back on the Karate Kid references--they're kind of weirding me out a little bit.  Besides, the Hungry Preacher already has an alter-ego.  He doesn't need another one.  Second, if you really want to defeat the Cobra Kai once and for all, today is your lucky day.  I'm going to give you a crash course in several different "specialty" deals and tactics that will save you money from Pomona to Okinawa and back again.

Also known as "BOGO."  This is one of the most appealing SOUNDING deals, but remember: Don't fall for it unless the average price for the 2 items falls at or below your price ceiling for that item.  For example, my price ceiling for a box of cereal is $2 (maybe $2.50 if you get a few beers in me).  So if a box of cereal that is priced $4.39 goes on BOGO, it's still only borderline worth it for me to pull the trigger.  Always do the math.

Now here's the fun stuff with BOGO sales.  First, most stores let you use 2 coupons on a BOGO: one for each item.  It may seem counterintuitive that you can use a coupon on an item you are getting for free, but this is how it works.  Similarly, you can use a $-off-2 coupon on a BOGO deal; BOGO "counts" as buying 2 items.

What is even wackier is that every now and then, there is a coupon that you can cut out of the paper that says BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE for a product.  Sometimes, before that coupon expires, a retailer will put that same item on a BOGO sale.  Walgreens and CVS (at least) allow you to use the BOGO coupon in conjunction with their BOGO sale, and you end up getting both items for free.  It sounds crazy, but I've done it.  Furthermore, CVS actually issued a statement confirming that combining BOGO coupons with BOGO sales is valid and not shady (my paraphrase).  I have experienced some inconsistency among Walgreens stores on how they deal with the BOGO(squared) paradox, so don't be shocked if your advances are rejected by the local Walgreens manager.

For example, Shop and Save, a St. Louis grocery store, regularly offers $10 off a purchase of $50 or more.  These sales can be tricky, because there are a lot of traps you can fall into.

First, usually the excluded items are, in fact, excluded.  So make sure you're not including those items in your efforts to reach your targeted purchase amount.

Second, you still need to remember your price ceilings.  For this specific deal, you take 20% off every item you put in your cart.  If that reduced figure falls below your price ceiling, great.  On the other hand, if you've been doing the math, and have a bunch of items that still only total around $40 or so, you CAN break through the price ceiling on a few items in order to get the total up over $50.  That can be a slippery slope, though.

Third, when you're keeping the running total of the items in your basket, it's easy (and usually wise) to add a couple of extra items to make sure that you don't come up JUST SHORT of the target amount.  The problem is that every dollar you go over the target amount reduced the percentage that you save on your entire purchase.

Beyond those pitfalls, here are some other tips to remember on X-OFF-Y DEALS:
First, the target amount is usually triggered BEFORE coupons.  So, simplistically, if I'm buying one $50 item at Shop and Save, and have a coupon for $1 off that item, the discount will trigger, and then I can still use my coupon, essentially giving me $10 off my $49 purchase.  This is important to remember at Walgreens and CVS, where they regularly offer X-OFF-Y DEALS (often in the form of Retail Kickbacks) on products that regularly have coupons floating around, like cleaning supplies and Band-Aids.

Second, occasionally companies put out coupons that allow you get to an item entirely free.  This is most common with new products.  X-OFF-Y DEALS are good times to use those coupons, since you're effectively lowering the "Y" amount you need to hit to get your "X" discount.

Third, for the same reason as above, X-OFF-Y DEALS are a good time to make use of mail-in-rebates.  Which brings us to...

There is one rule regarding mail-in-rebates that transcends every other: MAIL THEM IN!  Personally, I find them to be a pain in the butt.  What helps motivate me is knowing that the companies do not want me to get around to mailing them in.  I see it as, "If I don't do this, I have become just another pawn in their profit-making game."  That's usually enough to make it happen on my end.

Logistically, make sure you receive and keep your receipt.  And check the expiration dates on the rebate offers.  Sometimes, a tag attached to the product advertises the rebate, but the valid purchase period has already lapsed.

Are something of a misnomer, annoyingly so.  In St. Louis, the 2 grocery chains that advertise that they double coupons only double coupons that are up to forty cents.  That was all well and good in the seventies, but coupons and inflation have trended such that the majority of them are for more than forty cents.  In other words, stores that SAY that they double coupons, in actuality, do NOT double the majority of coupons in print.

Worse yet is that no allowance is made for applying some sort of "double-esque" principle to coupons that offer, say, fifty cents off an item.  Contrast this with the Southern California (where I used to live).  There, the maximum value of a coupon that can be doubled is fifty cents.  BUT, if you have a coupon for more than that, the retailer will--though not double it--ADD fifty cents to its total.  So in California, a forty-cent coupon is worth eighty cents, but a sixty-cent coupon is worth $1.10.

Now you have an answer to the riddle, "When is forty higher than fifty?"  Why, when you're using coupons in St. Louis, of course!

All of that said, when browsing ads and sorting coupons, it's worth keeping the doubling principle in mind--at least in the back of your mind.

There are 2 kinds of coupons: Manufacturers Coupons (MC) and Store-Issued Coupons (S-IC).  You can almost never use more than 1 MC on an item that you purchase.  BUT, you can usually use 1 MC AND 1 S-IC on the same item.  This is easiest for me to do at Walgreens, because they usually print all the S-IC's for any given week within the ad for that week.  So while I'm looking through the ad, I can just cut out any relevant S-IC's as I go.

It is usually clear on the coupon if it is a MC or S-IC.  Most coupons you'll find in the paper or on the internet are MC's, while most S-IC are specifically within a publication from that retailer.

Grocery stores usually have a rack of damaged or discontinued items, weirdly tucked away in a corner of the store behind a freezer.  Walgreens and CVS typically have an end cap or two in the back of the store where they have these kinds of items.  I usually have a quick gander, and can usually tell if there's anything worth grabbing.  Usually there isn't, but sometimes there are some pretty sweet finds.

For example, CVS recently had a box of protein bars marked at 90% off.  That made them twenty cents a piece.  I bought about 15.  They also had some All, Gain, and Arm & Hammer laundry detergents at 75% off.  I had some coupons, and ended up getting about 7 of them for about $1.50 each.

About the coupons: Sometimes, a coupon will not "attach" to a clearance item when it is scanned, because the clearance item has been reprogrammed to scan as something like, "CLEARANCE MERCHANDISE."  Unless a manager tells you otherwise, don't take no for an answer if your coupon matches the item.

Also, every now and then, a clearance item will still trigger a Retail Kickback that is advertised for a similar, non-clearance item.  For example, Walgreens was once offering a $3 Register Reward on Ban roll-on deodorant.  On an end cap, I found a Ban, clinical-strength deodorant marked at around $2.25.  I bought it and, sure enough, the $3 Register Reward kicked back, netting me seventy-five cents AND some deodorant.

One more thing: Target clearance prices usually suck.  A lot of times, they're only like 15% off.  I've seen clearance items at Target actually priced HIGHER than the items by which they are being replaced, because the new items are on sale for 20-25% off.

Most coupons specify the brand, type of product, size of product, how many of the product you need to get, and when the coupon expires.  The only factor of those that is set in stone is "brand."  For everything else, I trust the scanner.  If it scans, I'm cool with that.  If not, I don't make a stink.

That said, it is very rare that an expired coupon will scan; usually, the only time I'll hand an expired coupon to the cashier is by mistake, since it's pretty much just a waste of time to hope that it scans.  It is almost as rare that a coupon will scan if you haven't purchased the amount of items specified on the coupon; it's also not something I bother testing except by accident.

But product type and size are sometimes fluid.  For example, a lot of coupons for shampoo will also work if you are buying that brand's conditioner.  Or if you have a coupon for peanuts and want to use it on mixed nuts, instead.  Or if you have a coupon for the 1-liter size mouthwash, but are buying the .5-liter size.

I have not seen a corporate statement that disparages such coupon usage, and most cashiers and managers seem happy to defer to the computer as all-knowing.  I try not to be too screwy with it and, like I said, if it doesn't scan, I cut my losses and move on.

We're in the homestretch here.  You've done the heavy lifting.  I'm planning to wrap things with an "appendix of resources" on Friday, and maybe one more post squeezed in between now and then.

Until then...


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