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Frugal Ethics Question: Printable Coupons

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Reader Jon relayed a story to me today about Superfresh supermarket and printable coupons. A cashier told Jon that they no longer accepted printable coupons from the web, probably because of fraud. Joe then discovered that the self-checkout aisle’s computers still scan and accept them, not surprising because these were legitimate coupons. Then he did the next logical step, he wondered if using them was ethical.

To help answer his question, I’m posing the question here along with what I think. I think there are several schools of thought on this issue. You could argue that if they didn’t want to accept printable coupons, they should program the scanners to differentiate and disallow printable coupons. You could also argue that it’s unfair to disallow printable coupons if they’re legitimate. Finally, you could argue that Superfresh makes the rules, you abide by them. There are more but I bet those three are the three most common responses (someone cue up the Family Feud theme).

Before I offer up my opinion, I had to confirm the policy. I tried to find a policy on printable coupons on the Superfresh site and couldn’t. The only point mentioned about coupons was that they should be presented first, presumably before any items [Superfresh Policies]. Since I couldn’t find an official policy on the site, I’d say that using printable coupons at Superfresh is perfectly ethical. The cashier may have been misinformed or simply having a bad day.

If they had listed that printable coupons are not acceptable on their site, then I think using them at Superfresh wouldn’t be ethical. They’re clearly legitimate coupons, since they scan, but if you have to find a loophole to get them to accept it, then I think that’s not entirely ethical. I’d be curious to know whether this is a local store policy or not, though I have no way of checking that.

What do you all think? OK to use coupons? Ethically gray but still OK? Not at all ethical?

{ 30 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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30 Responses to “Frugal Ethics Question: Printable Coupons”

  1. Brandon says:

    It is the store’s fault if they accept coupons that are against policy. Ethically fine.

    Ethically gray would be when I used a coupon many times because the register did not ask for it to be inserted into the coupon slot or when I did some questionable coupon stacking ($2.00 off a $10.00 purchase and $1.50 off a $10.00 purchase)

  2. jim says:

    I don’t know if your two scenarios are even ethically gray. Just because the typical process is to insert the coupons doesn’t mean that every process is like that, some stores may not care. You could argue I’m just fooling myself but failing to ask you to insert the coupons wouldn’t be the standard programming, that would have to be specially set I would imagine.

    As for coupon stacking, I think that’s 100% ethically good. Coupons are coded not to be combined with others if the store manufacturer doesn’t want them to stack.

  3. Amy says:

    Its not even the store’s problem. The store is reimbursed by the manufacturer, anyways. I could see the store not accepting the coupons if the store were getting gypped. But they aren’t. I think it was laziness on the part of the cashier. Ethically, if the coupon scans, then it is the store’s responsibility to take it off. Then again, the person with the coupon could always decide NOT to purchase the item. No one is FORCING that item upon the consumer.

  4. I work at a grocery store and am in charge of supervising the front end to make certain that everything runs smoothly. I don’t work for Superfresh, but I have to say that their policy makes sense. I get pages of copies of fraudulent coupons sent to me each week, more than I could ever possibly memorize. The worst part is just because a coupon scans doesn’t mean that it is legit and every fraudulent coupon a store takes leaves them out that money. That being said most of the fraudulent coupons are for large amounts off and I would assume that their self checkouts are probably set up so that a coupon over a certain amount needs to be approved by an employee so most likely if you are using a self checkout and the employee isn’t aware you are using a printed coupon the coupon is legit. Even in the rare case where the smaller coupon isn’t legit from my position that is part of an acceptable increase in shrink at the checkout in exchange for getting 25% of the customers to ring up their own groceries, so I guess I don’t really see much problem with using them at the self checkout.

  5. Amber C says:

    I would probably ask the manager and if the manager said they didn’t take computer generated coupons I wouldn’t use them.

  6. Leah says:

    I can see how the question of ethics can be brought into this. But I don’t think that’s really the main issue here. If the clerk is correct and you go about using the coupons anyway, then yes I think what you’re doing is questionable. However, I’m 99% sure the clerk was WRONG.

    It’s actually a question of verifying the policy stated by the clerk with the corporate offices. Websites are NOT the best way to go about this, a phone call is best.

    I recently encountered this problem at Target, a clerk told me they were no longer accepting internet printable coupons, even though the ones I presented her were issued by So I asked to speak with a supervisor, and I had 3 different people tell me that it was their new store policy.

    I know this is NOT the store policy (why would target issue a coupon that it didn’t intend to accept?) so when I went home I called Target and asked about the official corporate policy on internet printable coupons. I was assured that the employees at my local store were grossly misinformed on several counts, and the store would be reported for better training. The CSR personally emailed me an official statement about the policy for me to keep with me in case I encountered a misinformed clerk again.

    I’ve encountered this in other stores as well. In almost all cases it’s a matter of misinformed employees. This happens primarily because a new policy or alert has been issued regarding a specific internet printable coupon that is supposed to be declined, but the employee thinks it means ALL internet printed coupons are to be declined. It’s almost laughable, because in many stores they actually have THE SPECIFIC coupon posted in front of the register for the cashier to see if it’s the one they’re supposed to decline. But cashiers don’t pay attention to what the notice actually says.

    In many cases if scanned even by a cashier, the coupon will be accepted. It’s not just the self-serve checkouts. In some stores like CVS, it is the corporate policy for the store itself to decide which coupons it will and won’t honor. That means some stores might even accept expired coupons, while the same store down the street won’t.

    If you’re going to use coupons, make yourself as informed as possible about the policies of the stores you are using them at. Chances are you will be met with opposition in using them at some point. If you know you can use the coupon, be able to back it up. It’s that simple.

  7. Amanda says:

    I see no problem with using the coupons whatsoever. If it is their policy, it’s their job to enforce it… and allowing the coupons to scan doesn’t do that!

  8. Tim says:

    The checkout clerk was probably in error. Why would anyone offer a coupon (printable or otherwise) if people couldn’t use it within the parameters set on the coupon? There is no ethical dilemma here, because the company made valid coupons available for use. What is unethical is the store not accepting a valid coupon.

  9. CK says:

    I’d speak with the manager and inform them of the facts.

  10. Stephen says:

    You should not use the coupons. The clerk told you that they were no longer accepted. If you felt she was misinformed, then you could ask her manager who would confirm your suspicion or validate the clerks instruction. A generic website’s omission of reference to the policy does not have any bearing on the specific store’s policies.

    The fact that they hadn’t updated their machines yet and the self-checkout accepted them would not absolve you of doing something against store policy. And you were informed of the policy. Just because the door doesn’t beep when you take stolen merchandise through it, doesn’t mean you are allowed to do so. It just makes it easier to do so.

    If you felt that publishing a printable coupon and not accepting it is unfair, you can express that to the management, take your business elsewhere, etc.

  11. Ruth says:

    I have ran in to opposition when using these coupons also. I didn’t know where to start, trying to argue with the clerk or just not buying the items, or not patronizing the store. My local grocery store won’t take them at all. And I have had mixed results at other stores with various clerks. The one store actually links to them from there web sight so I don’t know how they could say they do not honor them when they have you print them from there sight.

    As far as ethics, as long as I am not cheating or making bogus copies, I would think this is perfectly ethical.

    I print my coupons from legitimate sights, such as smart source or get them direct from the manufacturers sight.

  12. Glenn Lasher says:

    Okay, several issues here . . .

    First, obviously, the store can set whatever policies they want. By the same token, there is probably someone there who can override those policies.

    If the self check-out won’t discriminate against coupons that conflict with store policy, then the store needs to revisit the software on those machines.

    If the cashier is saying that the coupon is not accepted here, then there are several ways this can have come about:
    – The coupon is not accepted here
    – The cashier was told that some such coupons are fraud, and misunderstood the statement
    – The cashier is having a bad day.

    In any of these three cases, you are faced with the question of whether you want to be a sheep, a bear, or something in between. Personally, I would ask why not.

    If you want to be painful about it, you can plug up the checkout line by demanding to see a manager. If enough people do this, the store may re-think the policy.

    At the other extreme, you can take the coupon back, give a Napoleon Dynamite-esque “okay”, stuff the coupon in your pocket and leave with the stuff you bought.

    In the middle is another option, that being to say, “Okay, I don’t want that, then,” which will cause the cashier to have to back out the item (which may require a manager, depending on store policies), will slow the checkout line, and will cause the store to have to re-shop the item.

    I would probably go with the middle option, in most cases, then go to the customer service desk and complain, so as to contribute to a pattern of complaint, possibly resulting in the reversal of the policy.

    Ethics . . .

    Well, it seems that the design and implementation of coupons is in need of some overhaul. The store should be able to determine the validity of a coupon by some means, and while I may have some suggestions, anything I could come up with will probably require an infrastructure overhaul.

    That said, it is not really ethical to deliberately take advantage of a technical flaw, more than necessary to confirm the flaw’s existence. However, if there is no posted store policy, I would assume that the casher didn’t know what he/she was talking about until such time as it came from a more authoritative source.

  13. Jim says:

    My opinion is that it is technically unethical. The cashier said its against the rules. SO its against the rules. The self checkout lanes accepting the coupons is probably an oversight they haven’t fixed. THe company website not having the policy is probably because it hasn’t been updated. I’m making a couple assumptions there. But I just have to take the cashier as knowing what they are talking about. Lack of confirmation from another source doesn’t mean the cashier is wrong. My company has tons of rules and policies and they aren’t all pasted on the web somewhere.

    Maybe the cashier is wrong. If you doubt what the cashier says then you can always take it to their manager for confirmation. Just assuming they are wrong doesn’t make it so, you should confirm they are wrong.

    I don’t think that using such coupons is a big deal at all. This is a very minor level moral dilemna as far as I’m concerned. While I am saying its technically unethical I really would not think bad about anyone doing it.


  14. Hawkmoon Nine says:

    Not ethical at all.

  15. Jon says:

    My coupons are legit. I haven’t been photoshopping barcodes or anything of that nature. SF is getting their money back from the coupons unless they are not sending them in. Even though I am not technically following the rules, I am not costing A&P any money. In fact, they will lose money if I stop shopping there.

  16. Patrick says:

    I don’t see anything unethical about it. If they do not accept internet coupons, then they need to make ti more visible and not just a secret policy only the workers there know. I will sometimes only go to a store like Superfresh if I have a coupon and would not have normally bought it if I knew they weren’t going to accept it. The only reason they don’t make it more public is they don’t want to lose some business from it.

  17. The problem with the printable coupon policy at most stores is that stores and employees are not consistent or they don’t understand the policy accurately. Some corporate reps will even say over the phone that each store’s manager gets to set that store’s policy.

    For example, a few months ago, there was a legitimate Target printable coupon for $5 off a $25 TOY purchase. Some jerk(s) altered the coupon to eliminate the TOY part and made it just any $25 purchase. So Target’s corporate offices decided not to accept either coupon, and stores put up signs to that effect. But there were SO many cashiers who refused to accept ANY printable coupon, and even some managers didn’t understand the difference.

    It’s been better, though I’ve taken to printing Target’s own coupons out in the store rather than at home (saves money on printing costs anyway). They come out on slick blue paper so there’s no question that I obtained the coupon legitimately. But even so, every once in a while I get a cashier who starts to mumble they can’t accept printables and I have to explain their own employer’s policy to them.

    All of which brings me to my point about Super Fresh: The ethical thing to do is find out the official coupon policy and follow it. I would both contact the store manager and email the corporate offices to find out what the official corporate policy is and try to get it in writing. Because Super Fresh has printable coupons on their own web site (I just printed some a couple of days ago), I suspect the cashier was wrong. If that’s the case, by all means use the self checkout, and whip out the written policy if confronted. And of course, only use coupons legitimately.

  18. Dave says:

    Here is a similar ethical quandary. At my local supermarket, I have noticed that if the cashiers scan a coupon and it is rejected by the system, they will almost always just override the rejection and key in the coupon manually (as long as the item is in your basket). Most of the time they do not look at the coupon in detail, so I am sure there are times they are keying in expired coupons or coupons for items that are similar but not identical to what the customer is buying. In that case, is it the customer’s ethical responsibility to verify that they are using a valid coupon? Or is it the job of the cashier to make sure the coupon is really valid before they key it in manually? I feel the latter but I would like to see what others think.

  19. jim says:

    Dave – I think that you’re good as long as you don’t knowingly give them a coupon you know is invalid. Some places will accept expired coupons, so that could be the case at the store you go to.

  20. Shadox says:

    There is nothing unethical about this. If the company does not want to accept the coupons, it is their responsibility to make the appropriate changes to their machines.

    If the coupons are legitimate, and the machines accept them, the shopper is doing nothing wrong.

  21. Mike Henry says:

    The local chains no longer allow printed internet coupons.

    Instead, some supermarkets allow to add deals to their rewards cards.

  22. Ray Kerstetter says:

    This rant about internet coupons is getting to be pure bull,if you ask me. I went to a Pathmark, which used to be a Super Fresh until some top mangement decision to merge the two-another story in itself. Well,in this particular store, the cashier right away said she would not accept my internet coupons, then the head cashier chimed in as well. Needless to say, I was so pissed off, I threw the groceries back in their face, and promptly went to another Pathmark (not formerly Super Fresh) nearby, and guess what? The cashier their gladly accepted the same coupons! ( I checked first with the customer service area). I also went to yet another Pathmark formerly Super Fresh,, and the manager there said ther was a conference call about this situation, and she was told to ACCEPT all internet coupons. So what is the problem? Should we do a class action suit against stores that don’t? Count me in !!

  23. Conrad says:


    being frugal about my time and my emotions tells me to avoid these coupons all together!

    Am I on the right planet?

  24. Mia Mamma says:

    Sorry to come so late to the party, but I think Conrad has it right. About a year ago MSNMoney had an article about the Death of the Coupon and how we’d all be getting cents-off over the internet or our cellphones, but it hasn’t happened yet. And signing up for “Advantage Cards” or special programs where you trade your family’s purchase information for discounts strikes me as a kind of extortion. It’s nobody’s business what kind of salad dressing I buy! Stores in our area no longer offer to double coupons, and most coupons on groceries are for things I wouldn’t buy anyway, or would compare prices and buy the store brand. Usually after taking the time to cut out and bring along a coupon, I find the store either doesn’t carry the product or has a product that sells for less than the brand name WITH coupon, so I leave the coupon on the shelf for someone else. Sorry if that’s littering.

    If stores would give a blanket discount on a purchase, ie $5 off a $25 purchase, that would be a coupon I could use. Until then, I’m buying generic flour to make my own bread and cinnamon rolls and pizza dough, and I’ve got 10 years’ of toothpaste stored up from the double coupon days. If Reader Jon determines that store policy is to accept internet coupons he should in good conscience use them, but I hope the coupons are, in fact, worth his time and effort.

  25. jr says:

    I came to this site from searching my issue. I was at the superfresh trying to use an online coupon. Usually I do the self-checkout b/c most supermarkets to me don’t provide me with the products I need so I buy very little from them. Well the self checkout was mobbed so I jumped in a shorter ‘cashier’ line. The cashier told me they didn’t accept online coupons. At first I was going to argue that the machines accepts them but I figured I’d trust her statement, but verify it myself. So it seems they don’t allow online coupons but the self checkout machines do. SINCE the supermarket’s policy isn’t consistent, then I’m going to use the self checkout machines with my online coupons as much as possible, that is, until the store figures it out themselves! So much for technology eh?

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