BY CHARLES BREWER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
I'm standing in the checkout line at Kroger, and this guy in front of me hands the clerk a wad of coupons that would choke a Clydesdale. For the next five minutes, the clerk is tied up running the coupons over the scanner.
"You got a printing press in your basement?" I ask the guy, laughing.
"No, I just save coupons," he says, then hands me a piece of paper. "Do you ever use the Internet? If you do, go to this site and you'll find lots of coupons for Kroger and Meijer."
On the paper is written www.supermarket.com.
There was a point in my life when I clipped coupons, but lately, who has the time? So the idea of just going online and downloading coupons sounded pretty good. And if you are a serious consumer of Friskies cat food or Cap'n Crunch cereal, you just print out a bunch of coupons, right?
First, the purpose of coupons is to get folks to try an item, not to give merchandise away. Someone with a gazillion coupons is playing with the system, not something companies want to encourage. If you keep that in mind, you'll understand why it's hard to find coupons online.
Second, folks looking for real online coupons should avoid sites that sell books of coupons. Some of these coupon books are really multilevel marketing programs that want people to buy coupon books to resell. Be very wary of anyone who wants you to part with money for coupons.
Finally, nothing is free on the Internet. Everybody's out to make a buck, and one of the few marketable commodities of the Internet is information. Information about who you are, how much you make and where you spend it. So be prepared to give up a little if you want something back.
That said, let's start our search for the elusive online coupon.
The Internet Coupon Directory (http://www.coupondirectory.com) has lists and lists of Web sites that offer free stuff. Some coupons, but mostly free samples.
Many of these samples, as I mentioned, require you to leave an e-mail address, street address and a few little facts about yourself. (You're on your honor to tell the truth!) In return, the site promises to send you a sample of coffee or cereal. If you're lucky, you might even get it.
(In a previous column, I described my experience with these sites: I requested free samples from about a dozen sites, and got one, a tiny bar of soap.)
But the lists contain a few gems: sites that offer real coupons, printable from the Web site.
For example, the Beech-Nut company has baby food coupons available on its Web site (http://www.beech-nut.com); click on "Special offers." (Unfortunately, the printable coupons are only available to Windows 95/98 users.) Chuck E Cheese's restaurants has (http://www.chuckecheese.com) and Mrs. Fields also have coupons online (http://www.mrsfields.com).
But frankly, it's pretty paltry pickings. Where are all the coupons?
One answer is at Supermarkets.com.
This site is run by ValuPage, a division of Catalina Marketing Corp., the Florida company that makes those little gadgets that print out the coupons the clerk hands you with your checkout receipt. Catalina is the king of the instant-coupon business, with printers in 11,000 supermarkets nationwide.
Buying habits tracked
The object of those coupon printers is to track people's buying habits, and Catalina has what it calls the nation's largest database of supermarket purchases. Now, they're trying something similar online.
At Supermarkets.com, we learn that companies are reluctant to issue coupons over the Internet because "such coupons would be too easily duplicated, altered or even counterfeited." ValuPage has something else.
At the site, you enter a ZIP code to see what stores in your area are participating. In the Cincinnati area, Meijer and Kroger are listed.
Each store has a list of ValuePage specials. You print the list and take it with you on your next shopping trip. If you buy any of the items on the list, you receive a coupon (from the little printer) for "Web bucks" redeemable as cash on your next shopping trip.
Inconvenient, but ValuPage claims that its coupons "tend to be of higher value than the coupons from the newspaper or direct mail." It also thwarts any attempt to print out or redeem a hundred coupons in one trip.
Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.