How Not to Offer Coupons: A CVS Story

We used to like Longs Drugs pretty well, as chain drugstores go. (For those outside California, the rest of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii, Longs was a regional chain of about 400 stores, headquartered in Walnut Creek. The name still exists in Hawaii, although it’s just a name at this point.)

It took us a while to warm up to CVS after it acquired Longs. Seemed like lots more booze, lots more store brands, lots more tchotchkes and “seasonal” crap–but the stores were convenient, and at least they didn’t have the vaguely creepy “I’d rather be at 7-11” feel I used to get from the ubiquitous tiny CVS stores in the eastern half of the US.

And, of course, we signed up for the ExtraCare card–after all, 2% back is 2% back.

Coupons Galore!

You get coupons with the ExtraCare card. Lots of coupons. $4 off a $20 purchase (with various exceptions), printed at the bottom of most receipts. Emailed coupons for 20% off (with an asterisk), good three days only, or whatever.

Last week, there was a 25% off coupon–good for one shopping trip, three days only. We took advantage of it: I was running low on multivitamins and glucosamine/chondroitin, my wife needed some photo albums, and more. The subtotal was about $85. The 25% discount was $8.54. Hmm. That’s funny…

Asterisk time: Well, the vitamins and glucosamine were already buy one, get one free, so you don’t get the discount. OK. We were still short about $2, but there was apparently some other explanation. Ah well…we’d be more careful, since the “buy one get one free” price was not much cheaper than Target’s or Trader Joe’s regular price, but what the heck.

Then came the 30% coupon

That’s right! 30%. Good for three days only, on one checkout. After groaning about the fact that CVS had tempted us with a less-valuable coupon that we used for most things we wanted, and reading the asterisk paragraph more carefully, well… there were still some things we could use, and 30% is 30%. (CVS is right next to the Safeway we use, even though we’re using Safeway less and less, what with farmers’ markets and the walking-distance Lucky, but still…) Although, even then, when my wife looked at their price for Polysporin, compared to Target’s non-sale everyday price, she noted that 30% off still wouldn’t make it a good deal.

Nonetheless… Some low-sodium house-brand cashews ($5.79 each, 2/$10, not marked as a sale price; a small photo album; two greeting cards: $18.49 total.

And we got $1.20 off. Which, by my calculations, is 30% of $4.

This time, we went back to the checker and complained.

The response? “It’s not good on sale items.”

The small photo album? “If you’d gotten a second one, the second one would have been half price.” But we didn’t get or need a second one. “That’s OK; it’s still a sale price, so no discount.”

The cashews? “$10 for 2 is a sale price.” So if I put one back, we’d get 30% off the other can (30% of $5 being roughly twice the 2-can discount)? “No–because if you get two, then it’s a sale price, even if there’s no date on the “sale” and even if you don’t buy two.”

In other words, if it’s in any way potentially under some circumstances currently sold for less than CVS’ highest marked price–which covers a pretty substantial percentage of a “sale!”-heavy place like CVS–then the 30% doesn’t happen. Even if they have to stretch “sale” pretty hard.

“Oh. So it’s a Macy’s coupon.”

That was pretty much the reaction my wife and I both had as we left the store–that and my wife’s comment, “Don’t bother saving any CVS coupons from now on.” There is one exception: The 2% “ExtraBucks” is a pure cash rebate on your next purchase–as clean as, oh, Kohl’s occasional $10 coupons.

We had long ago figured out that Macy’s Big Discount* coupons had an asterisk that basically excluded anything in the store you might actually want to buy or that Macy’s had reduced from its “We never actually *sold* any for this supposed list price, but doesn’t it make the sale look great?” phony list prices.

Net effect of the 30%-off coupon? Well, there’s a RiteAid store that’s not much further away… In practice, I suspect we’ll cut our CVS purchases by a lot more than 30%.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Trader Joe’s manages to make a lot of shoppers happy without coupons–or sales, for that matter. We use Safeway’s Club Card; the chain has lived up to its no-third-party-identification pledge, and the discounts are legitimate ones on things we’d be buying anyway–and, as we found when a coupon did ring up wrong, Safeway’s customer service errs on the customer’s side when there’s an ambiguity. Target’s coupons are pretty much always legitimate–and, unusually, the chain lets you use both a manufacturer’s coupon and a Target coupon on the same item. Kohl’s–well, so far, we haven’t learned to love the merchandise, but the coupons are 100% legitimate, period. $10 off any purchase of $10 or more means any. I can’t say enough good things about Office Depot’s practices, especially the store in Mountain View we used to use. The list goes on…

Lesson for Libraries?

Maybe, maybe not. I suppose it might be this:

If you claim to be offering something and it’s a phony offer, you’ll sour your intelligent patrons/users/customers badly. Doing that is much worse than not making offers at all.

In this case, RiteAid’s likely to gain through CVS practices. (Geez, I wish we still had local/statewide/regional drug chains–are California and the Pacific Northwest really too small a market for such a chain to be profitable?)

Heck, it probably hurts CVS even more than losing some of our business. After all, this blog has at least 900 readers…

One Response to “How Not to Offer Coupons: A CVS Story”

  1. Troy Johnson says:

    In regards to CVS you are correct that they will drive off the smart customers. The problem is that I do not think that the smart customers are the audience they are trying to target. Sure you will walk away (and should) but if ten suckers keep going to CVS because of the 30% sucker coupon then they will do fine. For many businesses in America the business is based on screwing people. If there were more Walts in the world they could not get away with this. Problem is that the smart shopper is the exception not the rule.