SmartSource

Since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, grocery shoppers have become more frugal. Concerned about the rising cost of food, toiletries and household goods, they are clipping more coupons and saving more money. According to the Promotion Marketing Association, spending as little as 20 minutes a week clipping coupons can save an average family close to $1,200 a year.

Since early 2009, coupon distribution has exploded. So much so that a recent study revealed over 89 percent of shoppers have used coupons in the last 12 months. With over 175 billion coupons offered by retailers in the first six months of 2011, this growth builds on the record-breaking trends of 2009 and 2010 when 311 billion and 330 billion coupons were distributed in the marketplace, respectively.

Many of my personal friends, co-workers and Facebook acquaintances regularly wonder how I save 70 to 80 percent at my favorite Fort Lauderdale Publix. Although I accumulate printable coupons from various websites, the Sunday Miami Herald and South Florida Sun Sentinel remain my favorite. In accumulating coupons from multiple papers — including the Spanish edition, since the coupons are different — I have a number for use when an item becomes a buy-on-get-one freebie or goes on sale.

Best places to find coupons

Many shoppers use the Sunday newspaper as their main source of coupons. They come in a number of varieties, the most common being the manufacturer's coupon. This particular coupon provides a discount on a particular product and is distributed by the manufacturer. Stores accept manufacturers' coupons because they receive reimbursement, plus a handling fee, upon redemption.

Although grocery retailers allocate about 85 percent of their coupon distribution to the free-standing insert, Internet distribution has experienced record growth over the last two years. The most popular online printable coupon sites are:

In the past few years, online promotional codes have become extremely popular, providing incentives from free shipping to a percentage-off discount. According to eMarketer, digital coupons have become so popular that 88.9 million shoppers used them in 2011.

Stores and manufacturers also send coupons to shoppers who personally request them. Obtaining coupons from these sources is as simple as searching the Internet for your favorite brand or store and typing the term “coupon” into your browser. For instance, typing the terms “Kraft cheese” and “coupon” yielded over 559,000 results. Most manufacturers have a separate area for coupons or special discounts. Thereafter, it is simply a matter of printing the coupon for redemption at the retailer.

Whether you shop at Albertsons, Fresh Market, Harmons, Maceys, Sam’s Club, Smith’s Food and Drug, Walmart or Whole Foods Market, each of these retailers offers an online section with coupon policies, savings and store discounts. Shoppers visiting a store website need only direct themselves to the coupon section, then click and print desired grocery coupons.

Some grocery stores accept traditional competitor coupons, while others — such as Albertsons, Harmons, Maceys and Walmart — do not. Although no longer common and not to be expected, it does not hurt to inquire about store-specific policies, as competitor coupons allow for deeper savings at the checkout counter.

Thousands of websites exist that allow shoppers to buy, sell or trade coupons. Although illegal and generally frowned upon, the popular auction site eBay has become No. 1 for coupon sales.

Additional coupon and deal sources

Some of my personal favorite websites for Internet coupon clipping are:

Be sure to print at least two of each coupon to take advantage of any “BOGO” free offers.

When it comes to “deal-of-the-day” discounts Groupon, LivingSocial and LuckyFan are fast becoming industry leaders.

“Today’s shopper is more discount-focused than ever before,” said Jamie McDonnell, President of LuckyFan. “Daily deal sites are becoming a common reality in tough economic times. More and more shoppers not only expect, but demand discounted prices.”

When it comes to eating out, Restaurant.com is my favorite site for gift certificates. With more than 18,000 restaurants nationwide and more than 45,000 daily gift certificate options, customers have saved more than $500 million since the program started. Restaurant.com also offers deeply-discounted promotional codes for loyal email subscribers and Facebook friends.

According to Restaurant.com, it filled more than 5.5 million tables nationwide and fed more than 18.4 million people in 2010. This was an increase of almost 10 percent from the previous record year. Its gift certificate strategy also generated about $400 million in revenue for a struggling restaurant industry.

“We are extremely proud of our achievements in 2011,” said Christopher Krohn, president and chief marketing officer of Restaurant.com. “These numbers tell a story that goes far beyond our own success. We’re lowering the financial barrier that keeps millions of people away from dining out in an economy that’s still struggling in the wake of a recession. We’re keeping tables filled at establishments that employ tens of thousands of workers around the country, saving jobs from being eliminated and restaurants from closing.”

Coupons represent free money and additional income to those who clip. Nothing can be more important in a tough economy where grocery bills exceed 12 percent of an average family budget. “If it’s free, it’s for me” is quickly making its way into my vocabulary.

Bill Lewis is principal of William E. Lewis Jr. & Associates, a solutions-based professional consulting firm. To learn more, please visit www.williamlewis.us.