Have we seen the end of paper coupons?

In recent years, digital coupons have been on the rise. The vast majority of Americans have a smartphone now, so they can utilize coupons via email, a web browser, or a store’s app. Digital coupons are much easier to keep up with than a flurry of paper coupons. Digital coupons are also far more environmentally friendly than stores printing thousands of fliers. However, stores were still issuing and accepting paper coupons as usual early this year. Yet during the pandemic, many stores suspended this practice to limit the passing of germs with the handoff of the coupon. Although these policies have been temporary, so far, it makes us wonder if we have seen the end of paper coupons all together.

Which stores have suspended the use of paper coupons?

H-E-B Grocery Stores suspended the use of all coupons in March as a response to availability issues. While the stores have since resumed accepting coupons, the chain is phasing out its print-in-store coupons in favor of scanning a QR code through the My H-E-B mobile app. Further, the H-E-B website used to contain a page of “Printable Coupons” but now includes only digital coupons. A banner on the “in-store” section notes that in-store coupons can be redeemed at the register through the H-E-B app or with a phone and PIN.

Peapod is the grocery delivery service for Stop & Shop and Giant groceries. They were previously known as the only grocery delivery service that accepted paper coupons. However, when they shifted to contactless delivery in the spring, they also suspended the use of paper coupons due to the lack of physical interaction between the delivery driver and the customer. While some sources say that they began accepting paper coupons again, a recent press release issued by the company only mentions digital coupons.

Have any stores resumed the use of paper coupons?

BJ’s Wholesale Club is famous for accepting manufacturer’s coupons since most club stores do not. However, they temporarily stopped this practice in March. At that time, BJ’s offered all of their store coupons as digital coupons. They also continued their “clipless” coupons - items whose discount is automatically deducted at the register. Some BJ’s shoppers reported confusion among other shoppers about how to use and redeem the digital coupons. As of August 6, 2020, BJ’s is now accepting paper coupons again - both from the store and from manufacturers. Their website notes that digital coupons are still available online or via the BJ’s app.

Weis grocery stores suspended the use of paper coupons in the spring for its contactless grocery pickup. But as of the time of publication, this policy seems to be back to normal. Weis’s online FAQ states that “All valid manufacturer and Weis Markets store coupons are welcome with your Weis 2 Go Online Pickup order. When you arrive at the store, simply hand the coupons to your Personal Shopper.”

Hannaford, a grocery chain in New England, briefly halted its curbside grocery pickup service in March as a COVID precaution. The chain resumed pickup services in April but did not accept paper coupons at that time. However, their website now indicates that paper coupons can be used at pickup.

Backlash to paper receipts

There is already a vocal backlash to the wasting of paper for coupons. Look at CVS, for example. Their long receipts, which include coupons designed for the specific consumer, have long been the butt of jokes and environmental ire. In 2013, the pharmacy chain reduced the length of its receipts by 25 percent. Yet in 2018, a Vox article reported on several reported receipts that were over three feet long. Multiple consumers reported receipts of almost six feet in length. The chain has consistently defended its long receipts, noting that the customized deals prevent them from sending out generic coupons and discounts to all of its potential customers. CVS has also increased the use of its mobile loyalty program, which offers an option for mobile receipts. CVS claimed in 2018 that the digital option had already saved “more than 3 billion inches of paper”. Green America has publicly declared it does not think this is enough. The ethical consumerism nonprofit launched a “Skip the Slip, CVS” campaign in August 2018, noting that just 5% of CVS customers use digital receipts. It will be interesting to see where CVS, and other stores that print paper coupons, go from here.

Where does this leave us?

As you can see, most stores that have suspended the use of paper coupons have already resumed accepting paper coupons. This is good news for fans of paper coupons. 44% of Americans are fans, according to studies that show the number of shoppers that prefer paper. Yet the use of paper coupons, as we mentioned, causes a lot of paper waste. Thirteen million trees are cut down every year for paper coupons, and only 1% of paper coupons are actually used. Two of every five American consumers already clip coupons online, and 38% of Americans use their mobile devices to store coupons. Stores may be benefitted by considering how to get the remaining couponers to switch to digital instead of wasting reams of paper to reach such a small percentage of use.

While paper coupons have the ability to spread more germs and are certainly not eco-friendly, the digital option is not perfect either. Digital coupons can be a hassle and confusing for patrons that are not technologically savvy. Paper coupons may be a better option for elderly or vision-impaired customers. We are clearly not yet to the end of the paper coupons, but the trend seems to be leaning toward digital coupons, with stores encouraging customers to use coupons on their smartphones. At least for now, you still have the option to use either. If you love the feeling of literally clipping coupons, most stores still have paper coupon options. If you’re not into the literal baggage that comes with paper, digital coupon options abound. Which do you prefer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.