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With coupon use down, are the days of extreme couponing over?

Addie Broyles

In today’s business section, we ran a story from Amy Dunn of the Raleigh News & Observer, who wrote a really interesting piece about how coupon use is down 17 percent in just one year .

That’s a sharp decline after several years of recession-driven spikes that have had shoppers cashing in on coupons at some of the highest rates that manufacturers have seen.

The revived interest in coupons has led to shows like TLC’s “ Extreme Couponing,” as well as dozens of websites and blogs tapping into the frenzy.

In turn, manufacturers have started adjusting the discounts and expiration dates to lower the redemption rate. With some 305 billion coupons offered a year, in both digital and paper formats, only 1 percent were cashed in at the high point in 2011, which led companies to lower their value.

Their tactic worked, even a little better than they’d hoped.

Dunn reported that of the 2.9 billion coupons cashed in last year, more than half a billion less than the year before, about 90 percent came from traditional coupon books or fliers and only one percent were the “click-to-card” digital coupons offered on a store’s loyalty cards.

In the Austin grocery market, the only store offering those kinds of coupons is Randalls, which put a lot of money and marketing effort behind its Just 4 U coupon app when it launched in the Austin market last year .

That app works with the store’s Remarkable loyalty card to personalize coupons based on a customer’s shopping habits and preferences. I’ve heard of a few Austinites using (and liking) this app, but it’s not a game-changer, just yet.

We’re at an interesting point with digital coupons. You’ll remember that a few weeks ago, a panel at SXSW discussed innovation in grocery stores , and though digital coupons came up, the panelists were focused on much bigger and more expensive innovations, such as holograms or “smartcarts.”

Anecdotally, it is clear that Americans, on the whole, are willing to use the internet to search for recipes, cooking tips and product information, but the apps specifically developed for those tasks aren’t taking off as much as developers might have hoped.

The majority of shoppers have smartphones that could facilitate digital coupon use (or making grocery lists), but most of us are still clipping paper coupons or using in-store coupons that are available right next to the products themselves.

Dunn reports that Inmar, a Winston Salem-based company that analyzes coupon use and also operates paper coupon clearinghouses, is forecasting a nearly 900 percent increase in paperless coupons by 2015.

When current usage is so low, that increase isn’t really a sweeping as it might seem. My theory, which of course stems from my own grocery shopping experience and observations, is that our reluctance to embrace the digitification of the grocery shopping experience is tied to the tangibility of buying — and cooking and eating — very real ingredients.

I’d love to hear what you all think about the future of coupons. Do you use coupons at all? What about digital coupons? Would you be more likely to use them if the store you shopped at had its own app?