Saturday, November 24, 2012

Still Life With Robin: When Is a Coupon Not a Coupon?

by Peggy Robin

On this kick-off weekend to the holiday shopping season I'm issuing a warning that I hope will save some of you from a shopping hassle I have now observed three different times, in slightly different forms, over the past three days. Here's the basic scenario: It starts when a customer is trying to use a discount coupon that is not actually the coupon itself; it's just a print-out of an email that directs the customer to go to a website to retrieve and print the coupon. Unfortunately, the customer hasn't read the fine print in the email, only the part that proclaims in large type: "$15.00 off!" or some other substantial break in the price of the desired. She then presents this document to the cashier, who rejects it out of hand, because the paper lacks the bar code needed to be scanned for the discount to be applied. If the cashier is not sufficiently versed in the technology to explain the glitch to the customer --or not sufficiently fluent in English to say anything other than "no good" or words to that effect-- then the people waiting in line behind the customer may be stuck while the customer becomes more insistent, and then more petulant and/or agitated about the failure to receive the expected benefit. And the stand-off may continue until the manager is summoned to intervene.

In badly managed stores, the appearance of the manager may not be sufficient to remove the dispute from the line, and so we (those of us who have not given up on trying to make a purchase at this point) are treated to the manager's tortured attempts to reason with the disappointed discount presenter. The
customer thinks it's outrageous to be told to go home, log into her email, find the original one with the offer, click on the link it contains, which goes to a web page with the actual coupon to be printed and brought back in to the store to be presented at the register -- after waiting in line again. Alternatively,
it may be possible for the discount to be pulled up on the customer's smartphone, where it can be scanned as a Q-code. The problem is that this same customer who can't figure out how to use the online discount offer correctly is even more challenged by the task of accessing email on the phone and getting the discount applied by that means.

The anger factor is multiplied when the discount at issue is not a matter of a few dollars off the cost of an item but about seats to a sold-out show or means of transportation. If the paperwork shown to the agent at the "will call" or passenger ticket window is not what is needed to allow the customer to retrieve the reservation but is merely an intermediate document, insufficient to complete the transaction, that's trouble for everyone: the turned-away customer, the company selling the seats, the discount organizer (assuming that Groupon, Living Social or some other deal-making enterprise is involved), and last of all, all the impatient other customers like me left in long queues to witness the unhappy
exchange of opinions about how to resolve the conflict. 

I'm not here to assign blame -- though if I were running a coupon business, I would make sure the instructions for use of the discount appeared in substantially larger point type than the amount of the discount. And if I were the manager of a business that arranged to give discounts retrievable only by
multiple steps online, I might look for a way to allow customers to receive such discounts, even if they made a mistake in following the instructions. But my purpose right now is simple: To remind everyone, in the spirit of holiday helpfulness, to print the coupon itself, not just the email announcing it.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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