Offers you can't refuse: Money-saving coupons make a comeback

Thanks to the recession and their availability on the internet, money-saving coupons are popular again – and there's no shame in using them, vouches Adharanand Finn
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I'm standing at the checkout in Waitrose clutching a packet of Nature Babycare nappies under my arm. I should have used a basket, I think, or at least bought some other shopping as well. It's OK, I remind myself, you're not doing anything wrong.

At the till, I smile at the cashier, casually handing over the nappies and a £6 coupon – the nappies cost £5.99. I try not to look like I'm slipping her a bribe. She studies the coupon for an uncomfortably long time before saying "Just a minute" and walking off to confer with her supervisor. I have an urge to scarper, or to offer loudly to pay for the nappies, explaining what a huge mistake it's all been. She returns.

"We won't be able to refund you the 1p," she says. That's it? She hands me the nappies. I'm free to go. I feel victorious, as though I've got away with something. So long, suckers, the nappies are mine.

The coupon came my way via my voucher-savvy brother, who told me that if I signed up on the Nature Babycare website, I could get a further £3 off my next packet. And if my wife did the same, we'd get another free packet. So I did, and it was true. What was this? Free stuff? Was there any more where these came from? I decided to see how much money I could save in a week using coupons and vouchers.

The coupon industry is in rude health. This is partly due to the continued growth of the internet, which has been harnessed by consumers and businesses as a quick and easy way of disseminating vouchers and coupons. Their popularity has also been aided by the recession. Martin Lewis, the creator of the website, says the stigma attached to vouchers has disappeared now that it is "chic to be cheap". His site recently did a survey and found that around 50 per cent of people even thought it was fine to use a voucher in a restaurant on a first date.

Oliver Felstead, the sales and marketing director at Couponstar, a company specialising in grocery coupons, agrees that the financial difficulties have brought about a change in consumer psyche.

"Until 2007, the coupon industry was in decline," he says. "But the recession has changed consumer behaviour. In 2007, coupon distribution in the UK was up 20 per cent year-on-year, and that rise has continued since then."

Once you start looking for them, there seem to be coupons and vouchers everywhere. Even as I spend my second nappy coupon, the cashier hands me a £5-off voucher for Boots' No 7 skincare range. It's not really my thing, but my mother-in-law is a fan and is delighted when I give her the voucher.

My wife, walking into H&M the very next day, is handed a 20 per cent-off voucher, which she promptly uses to buy herself a cardigan. Even stepping off the train, someone hands me a voucher for 50p off a Kit Kat and coffee on my return journey. What's going on? I don't remember seeing so many vouchers before.

However, like some slot machine that has drawn me in with an early jackpot, the returns appear to be diminishing. I don't usually drink coffee or eat Kit Kats on the train, so to use that last voucher would actually involve spending more money, rather than saving. Which is, of course, what all coupons and vouchers are trying to get you to do. The corporate world hasn't suddenly gone soft. But is using vouchers a game you can play, and win? Or will you always lose out?

Lewis says more people are playing the voucher game. He has recently seen a rise in what he calls "voucheristas", who are people who actually decide what to buy and where to shop depending on what vouchers are available. Another category of voucher shopper, he says, is the "tactical buyer". This is someone who knows what he wants to buy, but will wait until a voucher becomes available before going into the shop to "blitz it".

To find vouchers, the place to start is online. The best sites I found were Lewis's own, and For a novice such as I, however, it's easy to get lost wading through the river of deals, particularly if you venture on to the proliferation of less scrupulous sites listing offers that have long expired.

Felstead recommends registering on the websites of your favourite brands, as often the best coupons are mailed out this way through newsletters. For the hardiest coupon-hunters, there are Facebook groups and a Twitter service to tell you when new deals become available, and even iPhone vouchers that alert you as you walk past the shop in question. Vouchers, it seems, have moved on from the stereotypical image of old ladies cutting coupons out of magazines.

After searching through reams of misleading non-deals and offers on things I don't want, I eventually manage to print myself off two more coupons, one for a free bar of Milka and one for 40p off a packet of Kettle Chips. As I hand the vouchers over in my local Tesco, however, the cashier gives me such a suspicious look it makes people in the other queues turn around to see what is happening. In the end, she calls her supervisor, which causes grunts of disapproval in the queue behind me. At no point do either the cashier or her supervisor apologise to me for the hold-up. They seem to hold me to blame and eye me with mistrust. I get my Swiss chocolate and posh crisps for just 60p, but the saving is tainted by the checkout tribulation.

One place where vouchers are accepted without so much ado is in chain restaurants such as PizzaExpress, Strada and Ask. I eat out twice in my voucher-hunting week, and both times I use two-for-one offers. The first meal is with my coupon-expert brother. He says it is stupid to eat in these restaurants without a voucher. You can find them online in two minutes, print them off, and save yourself £10. Indeed, the waiter in Strada accepts the voucher as though he has seen a hundred already that day.

My second outing is a family meal on my birthday. I ask the waitress if many people use vouchers there and she looks at me as if I'm mad. "Everyone," she says, before explaining how the staff actually look forward to Fridays and Saturdays, when people can't use vouchers, because of all the paperwork involved with them.

So at the end of my week of wheeling and dealing on the coupon market, how did I fare? My haul of goodies includes cheap nappies, a free chocolate bar, a cheap bag of crisps, £10 off an online Tesco order, and two half-price meals (and a cheap cardigan for my wife and some face cream for my mother-in-law). Not bad – although possibly not worth the time I spent wading through offers on everything from shoes to toasters, bikes to leg waxing – and I was even offered 10 per cent off the services of Divorce-Online, and 51 per cent off a fire-eating workshop.

The more practised you get, the easier it is to target the most relevant deals. It depends how badly you want it, but if you do, coupons can save you money. Well, a little bit.