When I saw the first episode of “Extreme Couponing” on cable's TLC network last December, my sense was that the viewing public would learn new ways to save money and be reinvigorated to use coupons each time they shop.
I was wrong.
Hundreds of emails from shoppers later I am now convinced that this whole concept will do more harm than good. Scores of magazine and newspaper articles later, despair has set in. No longer feeling good about saving $10, or 10% to 20%, shoppers are comparing themselves to the "extreme-savings famous," becoming depressed that they are not able to buy $1,000 or more groceries for 25 cents.
Watching and reading about these (may I say?) obsessed savers, makes me wonder just how long it will take them to use the 200 rolls of toilet tissue or 12 gallons of mayonnaise that is stored in their custom-built store room.
And it is no surprise to see the backlash from supermarket retailers who are now revising their couponing policies to avoid driving themselves out of business with abnormal and unrealistic redemption costs.
Putting these manic shoppers up as role models for the average person, who has a full-time job, cooks and takes care of their families on a day in and day out basis is wrong. If we do want to highlight how to save money on groceries can we please do it in a way that empowers with realistic tips that won't take 30 to 50 hours a week of one's life?
On SupermarketGuru.com  we ran a quick poll to discover just what our readers' grocery savings strategies are as a result of the promotion of “Extreme Couponing”: 73% of our panel said they are spending one hour or less planning their savings/shopping trip — less than 1% spend more than 4 hours. Is time money? For our consumer panel it certainly is with 59% saying, “Saving time is equally important as saving money.”
Even without the tens of hours a week clipping away, 64% report they save between 11% and 40%. One panel member actually said that they “strive to pay nothing” — good luck with that!
Couponing is a valuable tool for brands and marketers. It is a powerful method to introduce new products and spur sales in particular ZIP codes or with targeted customers. With the Internet's ability to focus offers better than ever we should be rejoicing. Instead, we're promoting a desperate feeling to catch up, saying that unless we can save more than we spend, we are failures at food shopping.
As food prices continue to rise, and shoppers continue to search for the ultimate savings, we can only hope that more meaningful food messages — like good taste and good nutrition — are not lost.
Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com .