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Coupons, They Are a-Changin’


by on November 16th, 2012

Back in the 1990s, when as a twentysomething doctoral student I would make my way up the Otley Road in Leeds aboard the Number 93 bus, many of the bus tickets would carry a discount coupon from a fast food restaurant which shall remain nameless (It shall remain so not out of my desire to preserve its anonymity, but because we’re talking nearly 20 years ago here and I honestly can’t remember which one it was.) But the point to bear in mind here is that at no point did my interaction with that coupon extend beyond a tacit observation of its existence; at no point did it cross my mind to exchange that ticket for a discount on a cheeseburger. No, come the end of the journey, the ticket-cum-coupon went into the wastepaper bin outside the Brotherton Library.

This may have been because I didn’t really want a cheeseburger from the chain in question, but there were at least two other factors at work here. Firstly, I really couldn’t bothered with it; unconsciously, I knew that if I did hang on to it, I would never be able to retrieve it come the moment of redemption as it would be buried within a morass of small change and shopping receipts that you mean to throw away but never actually did. Secondly, there was, if not a stigma attached to couponing use, then at least a veneer of snobbery towards that usage.

Let us fast forward nearly 20 years. Couponing use has soared, in part due to the realisation that – literally – many of us simply cannot afford to be snobbish about such usage. It is no coincidence that as the global economic downturn took hold in 2008-9, couponing usage across all channels began to increase. At the same time, “daily deals” companies began to emerge, offering consumers the opportunity to purchase vouchers that in turn entitled them to reduced rate purchases of restaurant meals and hotel stays. Never was there a company of its time so much as Groupon.

Now, this being a column that dwells primarily on mobile matters, I am going to move onto the mobile angle of the couponing industry. But to get there, I need to step back momentarily into the paper side of things.

America, you see, is big on coupons. Even in the pre-recessionary times, usage of paper coupons was widespread. But come the recession, and it soared. According to Valassis, more than 3.5 billion coupons were redeemed in the US in 2011, more than 11 per head of population, a figure which is up by 35% on 2007. But – and here’s the big but – people were not content with the status quo.

It is at this point that Greg Grunberg, star of scifi series Heroes, enters our tale. Mr Grunberg is out shopping at a local store and realises that he has omitted to bring with him his ample collection of paper coupons; the cashier, notwithstanding Mr Grunberg’s status as a superhero and regular customer, would not provide him with discounts despite his protestations that he’d bring in the coupons at a later date. At which juncture he tweets: “Why isn’t there any app that has coupons on a phone?” Which was the moment that spawned Yowza!, the couponing app co-owned by Grunberg.

As consumer smartphone adoption has risen, consumers have become increasingly desirous of performing just about any activity via that device: playing games, watching TV, monitoring their health, buying a yacht… and redeeming a coupon. Mobile couponing is not a new phenomenon, and certainly not one limited to the smartphone space: Orange Wednesdays in the UK bears witness to that. But smartphones have the opportunity to take couponing a stage further by providing, in the shape of a mobile wallet, an easy-to-access coupon/loyalty card storage space.

The high-profile launch of Apple’s Passbook two months ago provided further momentum to the mobile couponing space, offering an opportunity for retailers and third party couponing aggregators – including Yowza! – to reach consumers through a preloaded app. Increasingly, consumers expect to be able to use the mobile device to receive and redeem coupons: by simplifying the process, the players are already experiencing an uplift in adoption and usage. More than 500 million consumers are expected to use a mobile coupon next year, up by 30% on this year’s total.

By the way, I redeemed a coupon for a cheeseburger last week. Times, and coupons, they are a-changin’.

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