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Lessons From J.C. Penney: Don't Mess With Coupons

Clothes on sales at a J.C. Penney store in Riverside, Illinois

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Clothes on sales at a J.C. Penney store in Riverside, Illinois

Mike Ullman’s direction for struggling J.C. Penney (JCP) has yet to take shape, but at least one part of the new chief executive’s plan is clear: Coupons will be back. Customers hated ousted CEO Ron Johnson’s move to eliminate sales and coupons in favor of everyday low prices, and Johnson’s backpedaling came too late. “We worked really hard and tried many things to help the customer understand that she could shop anytime on her terms,” Johnson said during a fourth-quarter conference call. “But we learned she prefers a sale. At times, she loves a coupon.”

In theory, Johnson’s initial strategy made sense—coupons are unwieldy and have the whiff of downscale shopping, and discount programs are expensive for companies to maintain. Yet Johnson failed to take into account our country’s longstanding affection for those money-saving pieces of paper.

For evidence, just look to TLC’s hit reality series, Extreme Couponing, which since 2010 has been showcasing the most dedicated (if slightly insane) couponers in America. As Jessica Grose explained in her review of the show for Bloomberg Businessweek:

The deep, endless urge to feed [the extreme couponers’] stockpiles seems to be a uniquely American compulsion. (Couponing began in the U.S.—it was invented in 1887 by Asa Candler, a co-owner of Coca-Cola (KO) and still hasn’t caught on around the world.)

Only in the U.S. are houses big enough to store so much excess, and only here are we so obsessed with end times; more than one couponer semi-jokes that if the Rapture were to come, she’d be prepared with her eight-year supply of toilet paper.

Although extreme couponing may be clinical, it’s also empowering. Many of the women on the show are feeding their litters by exploiting the waste of giant corporations. They take pride in their work (and it’s a lot of work), and several donate their largesse to charity. According to Zac Bissonnette, the author of How to Be Richer, Smarter and Better Looking Than Your Parents, couponing—and stockpiling—can be sensible from a personal finance perspective. “It’s possible to see a much better return on your investment by purchasing discounted, nonperishable goods like, say, toilet paper than by putting that money into a shaky market,” he says.

Happy couponing, Penny shoppers. If the Rapture should come, at least you’ll be well stocked.

Rosenblum is the Etc. editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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