This blog is mainly about saving and investing for military financial independence, not bargain-hunting or consumer products, so today’s post is a little different.
I’ll admit it: I don’t lead a consumer lifestyle, and I avoid shopping as much as possible. I don’t even go out much. I enjoy spending my time on the Internet and around the house. The little online shopping I do tends to be Amazon.com books. Most of my car trips involve getting a longboard to the beach or lunching with friends.
But 2-3 times per month my spouse and I end up at our local commissary to stock up on fruits & veggies– plus whatever’s cheaper than Costco’s selection.
It may seem that I’m hopelessly out of touch with modern shopping tech, but I’m also writing this post for people who perhaps have become set in their own comfortable grooves. It’s finally worth changing those old coupon-shopping habits. Forgive me if I’m repeating what some of you already know, but I’m also dragging along a few decades of consumer history.
Old-school coupon lifestyle
Over the last 30 years we did a lot of coupon shopping. I used to scour daily newspapers (remember those?) and coupon inserts. I’d clip whatever we could use, and sometimes I’d even join coupon exchanges to get more. We became especially good at it when we started our family. I used to regularly scan the coupon flyers at the commissary entrance and carry around a coupon holder the size of a small purse. I tried a few coupon websites, although those came & went as redemption policies evolved. I’d happily complete a survey or respond to a special offer for more coupons in the (snail) mail. As our daughter grew older, if she found a coupon for an item on our grocery list then she got to keep half of the savings. I probably spent 2-3 hours per week finding, clipping, and sorting coupons. We weren’t “extreme”, but we usually saved 5% on our commissary shopping.
Then other trends started to overshadow our coupon-clipping habits:
- Our baby grew older so we no longer needed coupons for big expenses like diapers or formula.
- Costco, Wal-Mart, and farmer’s markets started undercutting commissary prices.
- Our daughter left for college and our grocery bill immediately dropped by over 40%.
- Our metabolisms slowed as we aged, and now we eat less.
- We buy fewer brand names or convenience items– so we use fewer coupons.
Coupon shopping doesn’t pay off for us like it used to, and the research/tracking labor became a hassle. Frankly, my presbyopia makes it difficult to read coupon expiration dates without a searchlight and a magnifying lens my reading glasses. We haven’t paid for a home newspaper delivery in a decade, and I no longer chase down coupon flyers. If I’m buying an item from our list and a coupon holder is right next to it on the shelf, then I’ll take a few and stock up. However we’re only using coupons for 1-2% of our purchases instead of 5%, and yet our grocery bill is still smaller than it used to be.
We never joined the “affinity” and “loyalty card” schemes at our local grocery markets. We rarely shop at them because they’re so expensive (this is Hawaii) and even their discounted store brands are pricier than Costco or the commissary. When we’re traveling the Mainland I’m always surprised at how almost every grocery store wants to see my membership card.
The 21st century commissary rewards card
Then over Christmas break our daughter brought home a commissary rewards card. I think the commissary staff was handing them out at the entrance. Everyone got one, and there was no hassle about signing up or even supplying a phone number.
The card is not impressive. It even looks cheap. It’s just a piece of plastic the size of a credit card, with a couple smaller cards to put on a key fob. They all have the same barcode. It does not appear to offer any value and I wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. I certainly wouldn’t have expended any effort on signing up for one. But my daughter put it on my computer desk, so I had to set a good example of financial responsibility and pretend that this was going to start my coupon habits back up again.
On the website
The Defense Commissary Agency rewards card website made the same first impression as the card. Admittedly I was using it when it was still fairly new, and the signup page is a bottleneck. About forty gazillion other commissary shoppers were also registering and clicking through all the server’s links. The website was bloated with flashy graphics and it had a few HTML glitches in it. Happily the initial surge of visitors has subsided, and the glitches seem to be getting fixed. Every week the site is a little cleaner & faster.
After registering your card’s bar code you’re ready to start picking coupons. You can sort the coupons by 14 different categories and filter them by five different criteria, but I’m curious and lazy: I just queue up the whole bunch and look at all of them. These days the coupon-picking pages of the website run very quickly and smoothly, and major brands are starting to jump on the bandwagon. I used to only have 50 offers on my visit, and now I have over a hundred. You scroll through the brands and their images, and a popup window can clarify the terms or the expiration date. When you find coupons you want, you click on the “Clip” boxes to add the coupons to your rewards card. The whole process, from logging in to clipping the last coupon, takes less than five minutes.
The coupon boxes even have cute little Facebook & Twitter icons on them, so you can let your entire social network know when you’re getting a bargain on toilet paper or SPAM. (Don’t worry, friends & followers, I won’t do that to you.) I guess we can see why I’m not running a bargain-hunter’s blog here.
Now the cool convenience part begins. When you “clip” that coupon, it’s filed under your rewards card database on the commissary website. The coupons stay on that rewards card until they’ve expired. You can keep tabs on their terms & conditions, but you no longer have to care. No printing, no clipping, no sorting, no squinting at expiration dates or parsing through arcane purchase requirements. You don’t have to complete any rebate forms or write in any prices– or provide any data at all. You can just go about your normal shopping business, perhaps making sure you buy the minimums or stocking up before the expiration date, but the card takes care of the tracking for you.
We tend to buy the same items over and over, so the card is especially handy for stocking up. You don’t have to have a new copy of the coupon every week– the coupon stays in your card’s database until it expires. Each week you log in, pick whatever new coupons work for your list, and check that the existing coupons are still good. Now when I buy 3-4 packages of frozen mahi mahi each week through 30 June, I don’t have to peel the entire brick of coupons off the commissary’s freezer door and stash them in my coupon wallet for nearly four months. I just check the “My Coupons” tab on the card website one time. Once & done, and it’ll stay there until it expires.
At the commissary
The convenience gets even better at the cash register. A cashier’s life seems miserable enough even before a shopper plunks down a huge wad of coupons on the conveyor belt. The cashier has about 30 seconds to scan them for fakes or expired offers, to check that they’re filled out correctly, and to note that the shopper has bought the minimum requirements. A few errors by the cashier could easily wipe out an entire hour of their pay. Even when everything is legitimate the cashier still has to peel some coupons off the packages, maybe fill in a price or two from the register tape, swipe the barcodes through the scanner, enter a few barcodes manually, and possibly debate the whole process with a cynical shopper. Hey, you may be spending a few bucks for your seven-ounce package of Kona coffee, but you’re gonna be annoyed if they don’t give you that 25 cents back.
Worst of all, the cashier has spent their entire shift collecting huge wads of coupons from shoppers. I’ve always wondered how many people the commissary had on their payroll to sort, stack, wrap, and mail in their redeemed coupons. They have to track hundreds of paper coupon offers from dozens of manufacturers. They also have to check each one to make sure it’s not counterfeit, that it has the right data on it, and that they’re not redeeming more coupons than the number of items that they’ve sold. I’m sure that every six months or so a highly paid auditor has to spend their day comparing shoyu sales to coupon redemptions and receipts. Exciting work. It’s not just all the manual labor– imagine the potential for fraud and forgery.
With the commissary rewards card on the scene, that back-office infrastructure will shrink. When you show your ID to the cashier, they scan your rewards card right away and hand the card back to you. That’s all they need from you. The cash register is already on the Internet, checking your card barcode against your database and downloading the data of the coupon offers. When your package of haupia mix passes across the scanner then the register automatically credits that coupon against the purchase. Oh, but you only bought one package instead of the coupon’s minimum of two? No credit for you. Meanwhile the cashier can work faster and worry less about mistakes. When the cashier’s done the register automatically prints out the coupon credits at the end, just like always, but the cashier doesn’t have to bundle up your stack of coupons. They can finish processing your payment and get to the next customer that much faster.
I guess nobody is surprised to learn that commissary rewards cards are a much better deal for the commissary staff than the customers. But now we share the convenience, and I love the time savings. Life is getting simpler. We’re saving about 2-3% at the commissary, but I’m only working on it for a few minutes a week instead of several hours. As more manufacturers migrate toward paperless “coupons”, our savings will grow even more. Best of all, the commissary is reducing their back-office expenses and should be able to hold prices lower for longer.
The rewards card has been available worldwide for almost six months and the early adopters have theirs, so now it’s safe to fall in behind the rest of the crowd.
Speaking of Costco, their coupon flyer comes in the postal mail but you don’t need to clip most of them. The discount is automatically taken at the register and the shopper doesn’t even need a rewards card. Maybe the commissary will follow suit someday, but they’re stocking a much wider variety of products. Until the entire industry eliminates coupons, the commissary rewards card seems like the best way to keep track of all the manufacturers.
Other commissary benefits
Don’t live near a commissary? No worries, the commissary might come to you. Thanks to my blogger friend Kate Kashman, I’ve learned that DeCA routinely sponsors “on-site sales” at National Guard and Reserve units around the country. As DeCA says at that link,
“… the host commissary works with Guard/Reserve units that have at least 150 members stationed in an area and selects items to offer to these individuals during the sale. For information on how to have a sale near you, contact your unit who can then call the nearest Commissary to discuss the possibility.”
Did I mention that DeCA also offers gift cards?
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