Keep your wits, and your coupons, about you

DETROIT -- It took a chat with one of the top toy analysts in the country for bargain-conscious me to realize that holiday shopping coupons were already flying at me in such a flurry this year that I couldn't keep track of them.

DETROIT -- It took a chat with one of the top toy analysts in the country for bargain-conscious me to realize that holiday shopping coupons were already flying at me in such a flurry this year that I couldn't keep track of them.

The conversation with this particular analyst, who specializes in Lego pricing, came after I spotted a sale on some Lego "Star Wars" items at Toys "R" Us--and a coupon from the chain in the paper offering through Nov. 13 a free $10 gift card with a qualifying purchase of $75 or more. (I've since spotted a similar coupon in the paper good through Nov. 20.)

I thought I had a great deal working.

But, the toy analyst interjected, "There's a coupon for 20 percent off."

"Where?" I asked.


"In my room," he said.

Indeed, a Toys "R" Us catalog mailed to our house had a 20 percent-off coupon slapped on the front, which somehow ended up in the possession of our resident toy price analyst.

The 20 percent off would be a far better deal, especially since the analyst had his eye on the most expensive "Star Wars" item in the Lego catalog. The cost would be cut, plus we'd get an immediate discount -- instead of having to spend $75 or more to get a $10 gift card that would be "valid beginning six hours after activation" and expire on Dec. 31.

Lesson learned. Look before you shop -- for coupons, sales and a sharp analyst.

That could save you plenty in what's expected to be the strongest year of the past several for holiday sales because retailers are responding to the cash-strapped situation of many middle-class consumers, said Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

"People are still more sensitive to price than anything else," Swonk said.

Some stores offer several promotions, betting perhaps that you'll use the one that is the better deal for the retailer.

Sometimes, more than one promotion can apply. Bring all your coupons and ask.


Know that everybody isn't getting the same coupon.

The same retailer can send a 20 percent-off coupon to you but e-mail a 30 percent-off offer to your neighbor; sometimes, two consumers living at the same address, or working in the same place, get different offers.

"You might get a different coupon in your inbox than somebody else is getting," said Barry Boone, owner of near Tulsa, Okla. "They vary these things based on what they know about you."

At his house, Boone has also noticed that different coupons can be attached to the variety of catalogs from one retailer. Perhaps you haven't shopped with them in six months, and they want to offer a special enticement, said Boone, who tracks promotional codes mainly for online shopping.

Carry competing ads in your purse or pants pocket.

Many stores -- especially those engaging in a price war on toys -- will match the lower price in a current print ad.

Ask the store about deals or coupons. Some clerks will tell you if there's a special coupon in the paper, in a circular or maybe even in that Entertainment Book you forgot you bought for this year's school fund-raiser.

A few months ago, one clerk went online for me at the store to download a coupon after I suggested I could buy the item, go home to get the online coupon and then bring it back. Easier for her to just go online for me.


Go shopping with friends who get coupons. I saved a girlfriend $60 on two lovely pairs of pajamas -- plus she got free shipping -- because long ago I had signed up for a loyalty program at a store that let me offer my friend my coupons.

Watch out, because sometimes when you pay less, you get less.

Swonk noted that affordable luxury isn't really in vogue. Retailers know that many consumers aren't planning to buy a cashmere sweater -- "unless it's $19.99."

But some modestly priced "luxury items" can look skimpy.

I learned this lesson from Snoopy, who's not as big as he used to be.

Earlier this month, Hallmark offered a holiday Snoopy for around $10 -- a discount from $12.95 -- and I asked my husband to pick one up.

Snoopy showed up in a red hat, black sunglasses and a cheerful green Joe Mistletoe shirt.

But I was stunned to see a Snoopy who was way smaller than the holiday Snoopys I remembered.


Good grief.



--Make sure you know the going price of an item before you rush to get something on sale. The markdown may not be as good as you expect; other retailers may normally sell the same item for less.

--Go online for coupons before you hit any stores or do any cyber-shopping. At malls, including outlet malls, stop at the guest services desk to see if there are coupon booklets or special offers.

--Do not open more credit card accounts -- but check to see whether retailers are offering special deals for cardholders. For example, if you use a Pier 1 Rewards Card Nov. 1-24, you receive 2,000 bonus points that get you a $20 certificate. But you have to allow up to six weeks to eight weeks for the bonus points to post to your account.

--If you're shopping online, check for a coupon or promotional code before checking out. Confirm that you've received the correct item and discount before you click "submit."

--If you are an eBay shopper, check promotional discount code sites for an eBay coupon, especially if you make purchases through PayPal, according to Barry Boone, owner and founder of, a clearinghouse for promotional codes. He said eBay sometimes issues coupons that are valid for purchases made on the site with PayPal.

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