The spring conference of the Association of Coupon Processors was one of the best conferences I've been to in a long time. The theme was "100 Years and Still Counting," commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first coupon. Jane Perrin, from NCH Promotional Services, gave an excellent presentation on the history of couponing in the United States. Here are the highlights:
The first coupon was distributed in 1894 by Coca-Cola for a free glass of Coke at your local general store. The company gave retailers two free gallons of Coke syrup, up front, to participate. Two years later, Coke tried this with a different twist. Coke asked each retailer for 128 names of consumers. It then mailed a coupon for a free glass of Coke at the specific stores that gave the names and addresses. This was not only the beginning of couponing, but the beginning of consumer-specific data base marketing, too. These first coupons were classic "hard to handle," and very sophisticated, according to Perrin. They involved free goods, sampling, trade deals and data base marketing. Data base marketing of a sort was tried again in about 1915. Proctor & Gamble issued a 25-cent coupon that required filling in the name and address of the consumer and the specific retailer. In the 1920s-1940s, coupons appeared in magazines and Sunday supplements. Sales representatives handled redemption. They went to each store to pick up and pay the retailer for the redeemed coupons.
Couponing slowed during World War II but picked up during the 1950s post-war boom. At that time, consumerism really took off as well. In 1957 Nielsen Coupon Clearing House became the first third party to "clear" manufacturer coupons. In 1958, Carol Wright introduced the first direct-mail coupon program. In 1963, coupon processing was moved to Mexico, which may have been the first development of the Maquiladoras concept.
Clearinghouse technology came on the scene in 1980, when optical readers were tested to capture the offer code. Nielsen actually sent kits to manufacturers to help them put offer codes on coupons. The kit contained a typewriter ball with the specific font Nielsen could read, an eraser in case of mistakes and a ruler so it could measure the space. The biggest problem at that time was that manufacturers didn't want to give up the space. (Imagine their reaction if they had seen the current number system 5 and extended 128 code!)
In terms of growth, in 1965, 350 manufacturers distributed 10 billion coupons. By 1975, the numbers were 1,000 manufacturers distributing 35.7 billion coupons; by 1985, it was 3,000 manufacturers and 200 billion coupons, and, in 1994, it was more than 3,000 manufacturers distributing 310 billion coupons.
There's a lot of change going on in coupon distribution (purchase triggered, kiosks, instant coupon machines, etc.) and coupon clearing (one-count, Quick Pay, Catalina's electronic coupon clearing). But coupons are still out there. They still can effectively influence consumers' purchase decisions.
The ACP has started a committee to increase consumer, manufacturer and retailer awareness of coupons. They need help. If you're interested in taking part, call me at (813) 262-5775.