In just 12 half-hour episodes, a cable TV show on coupon clipping has managed to grab the attention of major U.S. retailers, give a boost to the struggling American newspaper industry and turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into accused criminals.
And that's just for starters.
Rank-and-file couponers grumble that the show has given coupon clipping a bad name and caused retailers to tighten coupon policies. They've also leveled accusations of coupon fraud.
Now as a new season of "Extreme Couponing" begins airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday on the TLC network, North Carolina finds itself center stage in the mania stoked by the show, which features over-the-top shoppers paying pennies on the dollar for groceries that they stash in every spare nook and cranny of their homes.
Two extreme coupon clippers from North Carolina - one from the Charlotte suburb of Concord and the other from the tiny town of Snow Camp outside Burlington - will be featured on the show this season as they shop at Lowes Foods, a Winston-Salem grocery chain.
Because of contractual agreements with TLC, neither Michelle Barnette, the Concord couponer, nor Shavon Via of Snow Camp would say exactly what they bought during their marathon grocery trips to Lowes Foods or how much they paid.
Via, who is in the 10:30 p.m. episode Wednesday, did say it was definitely not her biggest couponing feat. Her largest haul ever remains a trip to Kmart several years ago during a Super Doubles promotion, which made coupons worth up to $4. That day, she walked out of the store with $2,500 in groceries for $5.
Via, 31, the mother of four young children, grew up in Snow Camp the daughter of a farmer. She credits her coupon skills to her recently deceased grandmother. "I couponed with my granny since I was little," Via said.
Via, a portrait photographer, keeps a two-year stockpile of food, per granny's advice.
"When you're in farming, you never know," said Via, who lives on the farm with her husband, kids and extended family. "If you have a bad year, you know you're covered. That's kind of the same thing I do with couponing."
This season was Lowes Foods' first time participating in the show, and it wasn't pleased with the experience.
"If we had it to do over again, we would not have done it," said Lisa Selip, a corporate spokeswoman for Lowes Foods who said the show was full of misrepresentations and sensationalism. "Hindsight is 20/20."
A case in point, she said, is contained in a promotional clip recently released online. It shows a man arriving in the grocery aisle seconds too late to purchase an energy bar after an extreme coupon shopper put every last bar into her cart.
"The guy who walked up to the shelf was one of the crew members," Selip said. "It was all staged."
She said Lowes, which considers itself a coupon-friendly retailer, initially thought the show would be a great way to showcase its stores nationally. "Call it maybe being slightly naïve," she said.
Selip says the chain deeply regrets its decision to participate in the show. "My hope is our customers know we're a company of integrity and they'll understand we made a mistake."
That anger could come from coupon clippers who'll see people on the show using more than 20 coupons a day. Selip acknowledged that the company waived part of its policy for the benefit of TV cameras.
TLC spokeswoman Niki Kazakos said in a written statement that the network expects the coupon shoppers "to understand and follow their stores' coupon policies."
A show with impact
Coupon clipping has been a time-honored tradition among penny-pinching Americans for more than a century since the first coupon was issued in 1887 for a free Coca-Cola. Over the decades, the popularity of the coupon has risen and fallen with hard times and prosperity.
Fast forward to 2009.
With a bad economy and the proliferation of online coupon blogs, which made bargain hunting easier than ever before, coupon use exploded.
According to industry figures, coupon savings soared 21.4 percent in the first half of 2009 when compared with the first half of 2008. That trend has continued into 2011, though the increases have been more modest. Consumers saved a record-setting $2 billion using coupons in the first half of 2011, according to figures released by the marketing firm Valassis.
Amazingly high numbers of Americans also are identifying themselves as coupon clippers - more than 80 percent in some surveys. In this coupon-crazy environment, the TLC network launched its show "Extreme Couponing" last spring.
The show, which drew an estimated 2 million viewers, has been a big pain for the retail industry.
Bud Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Coupon Information Corp. in Alexandria, Va., has harsh words for the show.
"TLC used to stand for The Learning Channel," said Miller, whose corporation represents more than 30 major U.S. manufacturers, including Kraft Foods, General Mills and Unilever. "What are people learning?"
Instead of showing viewers ways to save on their grocery bills, Miller views the show as teaching nothing but "unmitigated greed."
As the show's season ended in early June, national retailers began adding restrictions to their coupon policies to thwart extreme coupon copycats, Miller said.
In just the last several months, Rite Aid and Target have changed their coupon policies to restrict the use of Buy-One-Get-One-Free coupons. Rite Aid also added a four-item limit to its policy and reserved the right of store managers to further restrict quantities.
The changes, Miller said, are an attempt to keep shelves stocked and available for more consumers rather than allowing vast amounts of merchandise to be swept up by a few.
"It's not going to affect the average consumer, but it will definitely take the wind out of extreme couponers," he said. "It's logical and reasonable."
Sunday paper thefts
A major beneficiary of the current coupon craze has been the struggling newspaper industry, which is fighting dual problems: slumping advertising revenues caused by the poor economy and slumping circulation numbers as more and more people get their news online.
Many newspapers, including The News & Observer, have seen increases in online readership and ad revenue.
Official circulation numbers for the six-month period encompassing the first season of the TV show won't be available until October, but an informal poll of more than 100 papers showed all but a few were up in Sunday single-copy sales. "And many were up in double digits," said John Murray, vice president of audience development at the Newspaper Association of America.
"It's like somebody flipped a switch in the middle of April and May," Murray said.
A typical Sunday paper, which costs about $2, contains $100 to $300 worth of coupons. Many newspapers, The N&O included, prominently display the value of that Sunday's coupons on the front page.
The impact of the show has been swift and dramatic, said Jim Puryear, vice president of circulation for The N&O.
"When the 'Extreme Couponing' show came out, it just poured gasoline on the fire," Puryear said.
But not all the extreme coupon news has been good for papers.
Newspaper executives across the country have reported a rise in newspaper thefts that coincide with the airing of the show. Couponers also have taken to Dumpster diving in their pursuit of free coupon inserts.
Bianca Howard, spokeswoman for the city of Raleigh Solid Waste Services, said she has fielded an unusual number of calls from women who want to know if they could mine the city's recycling bins for coupons.
The answer is a resounding "No" for a variety of reasons, most of them involving safety.
Most of the bins are filled with a mix of papers, cardboard, bottles and cans, she said. Looking for coupon inserts would be a messy task.
"I'm sure there must be better ways to get a coupon or two rather than stealing out of newspaper boxes or jumping into recycling bins," said Howard, who said she saw the show a couple of times and was "floored."
The show's popularity has not been lost on rank-and-file coupon clippers, many of whom have posted scathing critiques on coupon blogs and forums.
They've gone as far as to record the show and zero in on frames that show one extreme shopper using coupons intended for one item to buy a different item in order to get it free.
The woman denied any wrongdoing but the debate raged on among couponers.
Most professional coupon bloggers condemn the show.
"For me, it stinks because it's not putting couponing in the best light and it's making it more difficult for my readers to coupon," said Collin Morgan, author of the national deals blog, Hip2Save.com. Like all deals bloggers, Morgan loves a bargain but not to the exclusion of family and friends and a normal life. "The show is extreme in everything. It's really unhealthy," she said.
"It sheds a very greedy, hoarding kind of light on couponing," added Dan Griffin, administrator of the Triangle-based deals forum, SavvyDollar.org.
Yet both Morgan and Griffin said they can see some positives to the show, if it opens the possibilities of coupon savings to the uninitiated.
"It has brought some light on the fact that you can save a lot of money with coupons and it's not brain surgery," Griffin said.
The new season of "Extreme Couponing" has a full slate of 12 shows, featuring the stories of 24 couponers.
And there's already talk of a spinoff, this one involving a competition among coupon shoppers.
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