Couponing in the Clearance Aisle

Q: “Do you ever check the clearance areas of your store? I haven’t seen this strategy mentioned in your column. I recently had a good value coupon for shampoo that I found significantly marked down on the clearance rack of a large national discount store. I got a great deal on an item I need to use and was able to stock up with my multiple coupons. Each store has a different way of noting or locating clearance items, but it’s always worth checking for bargains.”

Q: “I recently tried to redeem a $1 off purchase of two sandwich spreads. I found one of these items marked down in the store’s ‘scratch and dent’ area and took one off the regular shelf. The scratch and dent item wouldn’t scan, of course, so the clerk entered it manually and scanned the other item. Then the coupon wouldn’t scan because it didn’t register on the clearance item. The store manager said that they don’t take coupons on items that are marked down. How should I have handled the situation?”

A: Does your store have a clearance or “scratch and dent” area? Many stores have a set of shelves near the back, or a portion of an aisle devoted to products that are priced with deep discounts. Some may be nearing the expiration dates, while others may have damaged packaging. These aisles are also great places to find bargains on holiday-themed items, such as paper plates, napkins, candy and other seasonal products.

But can you use coupons on these items? Usually, yes. A 50-cent coupon for cake mix will work on any cake mix of that brand, even if it’s in a pink box left over from Valentine’s Day. A $1 coupon for paper towels will work on clearance Christmas-themed designs as well as on the regular, everyday variety. And, with many of these products marked half-off or better, they become even better buys when combined with coupons

Trouble can arise though when a coupon doesn’t scan on a clearance item. This typically happens for one of two reasons: the store has altered the item’s UPC bar code (often by drawing a line through it with a marker to prevent it from being returned) or because the item has been taken out of inventory and its UPC is no longer in the store’s computer system.

If the scanner can’t read the bar code, the cashier must manually enter the price of the item into the register as a general grocery item. At that point, if you present a coupon for the item, the coupon beeps at the register. The register will try to match the coupon to an item previously scanned; with the bar code not present, it’s unable to.

At this point, the cashier will again need to intervene. Many stores do allow coupons on clearance items (again – a cake mix is a cake mix, even if it’s got Easter eggs on the box!) and a cashier can manually push it through. The store will still receive reimbursement for the coupon, whether you used it on a clearance item or a regular item.

If your store chooses not to accept coupons on clearance items, there isn’t much you can do. Stores are allowed to set their own policies on how to handle clearance items and even though it doesn’t make much sense, they can turn down a coupon. Remember, using coupons at any store is a privilege, not a right. No law states that stores must accept coupons.

The good news is that most stores, in my experience, do accept coupons for clearance items and you can definitely find some good deals this way. A few days after Halloween, boxes of refrigerated cookie dough with pumpkin designs were marked down to just 25 cents at my store. Right in the coupon dispenser over the cookies? Coupons good for $1 off two packages! I took home enough free packages to last through Thanksgiving, when pumpkin cookies were still seasonally appropriate!

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