History of Couponing

history of couponing

1887 – The First Coupon

Coca-Cola promoted its product with hand-written tickets dubbed “coupons” (from the French couper meaning “to cut”).  These coupons gave holders free samples of the new fountain drink, then priced at 5?.  This innovative marketing strategy made both Coca-Cola and coupon household phrases.

1912 – Coupons become the Industry Standard

Charles William (C.W.) Post used a multi-faceted marketing strategy to promote his Instant Postum cereal beverage.  The strategy includes extensive advertising, free samples, product demonstrations, plant tours, recipe booklets, and coupons.

  • Apocrypha: Post offers 1? coupons on Grape Nuts cereal circa 1890s

1920s – Coupons team up with print advertising to create mail-in rebates

In 1921, magazines started carrying coupons advertising a Palmolive trial-size soap cake; consumers just had to cut out the coupon and mail it to Palmolive to receive their soap.

In 1928, Colgate & Co. offered a similar mail-in rebate for a free sample of Rapid Shave Cream.

Other retailers began offering coupons and mail-in rebates for products such as Pepsodent, Deodo, and electronics.  Coupons could be found in periodicals as well as on product packaging.

1930s – Great Depression forces families to cut costs with coupons

Declining stock prices and rising unemployment rates in the first half of the decade compelled many families to overhaul they way they earned and spent money.  Retailers, desperate to attract consumer attention, responded by offering more coupons than ever for all sorts of products from hygiene to food.  Grocers and retailers started offering coupons as well to encourage business in stores.  Clipping coupons became a way of life for affected families so that they could afford basic needs like groceries.

1940s – World War II heralds rationing

As production resources are repurposed for the war effort, everyday goods were rationed heavily to the civilian population.  Everything from cars and oil to meat and coffee were available in limited supply.  To make sure that every citizen got his or her fair share, the government issued ration books full of ration coupons which entitled the holder to purchase a fixed amount on a specific day.  The frequency and amount of a product purchased depended on its scarcity and value.

During this decade, supermarkets experienced significant growth in both numbers and profits.  The convenience, freedom, and affordability (in part owed to retailer coupons) began to draw consumers away from costly, old fashioned local markets.

1950s – Coupons get organized

In 1951, Motorola Inc. offers a free TV shipping guide with a mail-in rebate found in popular magazines.

By 1957, coupons were so widely used that a coupon redemption agency, the Nielsen Coupon Clearing House (later known as the Manufacturers Coupon Control Center), was formed.  The Clearing House entered into partnerships with retailers: the retailers would offer coupons and redeem them, while the Clearing House would organize and calculate how much money was owed to the retailer as reimbursement for honoring the coupons.

1965 – Couponing popularity continues

By this time, half of all American households clipped coupons which were now readily available in newspapers and magazines as well as by mail.

1970s – Coupons become standard newspaper inserts

Consumers started receiving a new form of direct mail marketing: Free Standing Inserts (FSIs) slipped between newspaper and magazine pages.

More than 35 billion coupons were distributed during this decade.  Between 65% and 75% of American households regularly clipped coupons.

In 1974, the Uniform Code Council first implemented Universal Product Codes (barcodes and numbers that universally identified products).  These codes were scanned electronically at the point of sale, making sales and inventory easier than ever before.

1987 – Couponing Centennial

1990s – Couponing gets technical

A burst of technological innovation launched coupons into the online era.  As these new coupons codes gained popularity, paper coupons became more popular than ever.  Retailers began offering both types of coupons on their websites: coupon codes and printable coupons.  Coupon code fraud deterred many consumers from using them, but innovation on the part of the retailers combated threats to the newly christened e-commerce.

Coupons were so widespread that clippable discounts could be found for every sort of product: groceries, fast food, electronics, furniture, and more.

1992 marked a high point in print coupon usage with over 7.9 billion discounts redeemed.

In 1997, 83% of Americans using coupons; consumers save $2.9 billion by redeeming 4.8 billion coupons.  The face value of the average coupon was 64 cents.

September 1998 was dubbed “National Coupon Month.”

In 1999, 81% of American households redeemed grocery coupons weekly; $3.6 billion in coupons ere redeemed that year.

2000s – Recession brings a resurgence in coupon usage

A post-9/11 economy and subsequent financial instability brought coupon usage to a height not seen since the early 1990s.  Couponing became popular for families of all income levels, including the wealthy.  As Internet technology and websites became more sophisticated, coupon aggregators began collecting discounts from all across the web to make finding deals easier.

In 2002, consumers redeemed over 3.6 billion coupons.

By 2008, mobile commerce technology developed to such a degree that consumers could use their mobile devices to display scannable coupons at checkout.

In 2009, the United States Government issued 64 million coupons, each worth $40, for the purchase of digital-to-analog television converters.

2010s – Online coupons go social

Location-based networks, social incentives, and group-buying deals make finding and redeeming coupons more social than ever.  Deals are now available not just for day to day necessities but for luxury purchases like vacation packages, special tours, and high-end electronics.

2012 – Couponing turns 125

The Future – Mobile users are expected to double by 2016.

2015 – Millennials get into couponing

A report released by NCH Marketing Services shows that when millennials become parents, their value-seeking behaviors reflect those of Gen X and baby boomers, with 89% of millennial parents using coupons when planning their shopping, compared to 78% of millennials without children. Millennials with children are more likely to have increased their use of a smartphone to keep a shopping list (48%), get coupons or deals (53%) and download retailer loyalty offers (52%). But coupon use is prevalent across all generations and many parts of the world, with nine of 10 respondents stating they use coupons for their food, over-the-counter medications, household items and health and beauty purchases.