March 20, 2012

Extra Hoops for Discounts

I’m still not the best with couponing. While I have been using them more and more, I tend to stick to the Catalina coupons and online coupons. It’s just much less time consuming, and with being a full time student and mom-to-be, time is a precious thing to waste!

I’ve noticed couponing is becoming more popular. With TLC shows like Extreme Couponing and Extreme Cheapskates, saving is becoming more main stream. The changing face of couponers is causing some retailers to change the way they offer coupons.

Printable Coupons

Many retailers now require consumers to install an executable and browser plugins on their computers in order to print coupons online. According to the terms of use on some of these sites, the executable is designed to control the distribution of coupons, and enforce number limits. At least in the few websites I’ve read, the executable will not be used for passive consumer tracking on other sites. However, most companies reserve the right to change their terms of use, and not all coupon websites may be so honorable.

Retailers often use coupons and loyalty cards to track their customers. I’ve noticed the coupons I use change as I use them. It does make sense; the discount is in exchange for being able to learn something about their consumer base. In addition to consumer loyalty, retailers also gain valuable insights that they can use to increase their profits. This trade-off is fair in my book. Loyalty cards and coupons only track customer data at purchase time at the store associated with them. Visa and mastercard release statistics of their consumers cross retailer, but it’s usually aggregated and not tied to individuals at a personal level. Again, it’s strictly purchase data. Monitoring my non-purchasing behavior feels like a privacy violation, and with the trend of dynamic pricing could end up costing me.

My second problem with executables is that they are not always written well. Even if there’s nothing intentionally nefarious, a poorly designed script can cause a host of computer problems, which can end up costing me a lot more in the long run. Of course, there are always some bad guys out there. When looking to join coupon network, I ran across a site masquerading as one of the coupon distributions with an unsigned executable. In the internet world, that’s a big red flag!

So to avoid future problems, Domingo and I set up a virtual machine (VM). A VM is a program that simulates running a different computer. You can think of it like having a new, separate, computer inside your current computer. It’s a win-win for everyone involved. I use the same VM for couponing, so the coupon website can easily enforce their prinit limits just as they would if I wasn’t using a VM. A program installed within the VM will not affect my main computer, so if I accidently install a virus, my main computer with all my personal data is safe. Lastly, since I only use the VM for couponing, I can’t be tracked as I visit social networks, or read the news.

Social Sharing of Purchases

Another trend some retailers are experimenting with is social sharing, by encouraging consumers to post about their recent purchases to social networks. Walmart was testing the idea of offering additional discounts to consumers willing to post about their recent purchases on facebook. Amazon also allows you to post about your recent purchases as well, but without a discount. Even turbo tax let’s me “share” that I’ve finished my tax return. From a retailers perspective, social recommendation can influence new customers to make similar purchases. From a consumer perspective, it’s spam on my facebook wall.

The idea of posting to facebook – and thus my entire social network of colleagues, family, and even acquaintances – feels extremely personal to me. It’s true that I do often talk about things I’m interested in purchasing here, but a lot of that is wishful thinking or discussing ways to save. I even venture a hope that some of my online rambling may even be useful to someone out there. I don’t mind stating how frugal to anyone who asks. Posting it to facebook is like standing up at a family reunion with a bull horn announcing my grocery list.

Another form of social sharing are those check-in coupons, wherein a consumer “checks-in” via a mobile app, like foresquare to get coupons. Such over sharing is not consequence free, as Please Rob Me showed, by highlighting the public feeds of people who were stating they were not home.

I’m not sure how I will handle this. For now, I’m opposed to posting where I am, or what I’m purchasing, even if it means giving up on a few discounts. It’s been suggested that I create a fake facebook account, so I can “share” without sharing. While I certainly could do that, it feels indigenous. Unlike using a VM for installing executables, creating fake social media accounts would be going against the stated purpose of the companies offering these check-in coupons.

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