Why I Fought to Save Three Bucks (and Why You Should Too)

This guest post comes from Donna Freedman, a blogger at MSN Money's Smart Spending blog. Donna is one of my favorite personal finance writers.

On Friday I visited Office Depot for school backpacks at the killer price of $2.99. Along with other loss-leader school supplies, they'll be donated to a local social services agency. At the checkout, I handed over a “20% off all backpacks” coupon from an Office Depot mailer. The cash register wouldn't accept the coupon. “These are already on sale so the coupon won't work,” the salesclerk said.

I noted, politely, that the coupon did not say “not good on sale-priced items.” The cashier tried again. No dice. “It's not letting it go through,” she said, and waited. I got the distinct impression she wanted me to say, “Oh, that's OK.” But I wasn't going to say that, because my belief is that a store should honor its published offers.

She called a manager, who told me the coupon wasn't intended for sale items. I again pointed out that nowhere on the coupon did it say that. This started off a 10-minute dance between manager and consumer over what would have been a $3 discount.

Before you write me off as an intractable miser, consider this: What happens when consumers do not insist that businesses keep their word?

All kinds of reasons
During our little discount minuet, the manager demanded to see the mailer from which I'd taken the ad, saying it would explain that the coupon was not good on sale items. I went out to my car and got the ad; it said no such thing.

The manager, whom I'll call Nancy, tried several other tacks. She pored over the fine print in the store's weekly ad — complaining it was hard to read because the doctor had dilated her eyes that morning — but nothing in the ad excluded coupons. She said that “corporate” never intended for coupons to be used with sale items, and that's why the computer wouldn't allow it — the computer is programmed by “corporate.”

If that's the case, I suggested, then “not valid with sale items” ought to be written on the coupon.

She looked at it again, noting the phrase “we reserve the right to limit quantities.” I'd bought five, the limit noted in the weekly flier. Nancy said, “I'll give you the coupon on one of them.” I replied that nowhere on the coupon does it say that it was good for just one item.

“It says ‘one-time use', so I'll let you have it for just the one.” I suggested that “one-time use” might actually mean that I couldn't use the coupon again the next day.

Nancy said that when I signed up for the store rewards program, I would have gotten an e-mail explaining, among other things, why coupons couldn't be used on sale items. I repeated, “Shouldn't that be written on the coupon itself?”

A real headache
The manager said she'd send my “information” to corporate headquarters and have them explain why coupons can't be used on sale items. First she asked for my driver's license, which I would not have given, and then decided that just my rewards card would do. She wrote down the card number and told me that at $2.99, the store was losing money on the backpacks. Using a coupon made it worse.

I replied that I was familiar with the concept of a loss leader: you lose money on some items to get people into the store.

Finally the manager told the cashier to override the register and ring up the discount for all five backpacks. “I don't want to spend any more time on this. I have a headache,” she said.

You and me both, Nancy. Confrontation is not easy for me. I simply wanted Office Depot to make good on its published promise.

Why you should care
Some of you are probably thinking, It's only $3 — give it up, already. I don't think that the amount matters. The company mailed me a flier full of discounts in the hope I would come to one of its stores. When I tried to use one of those discounts, employees decided that it shouldn't apply to sales.

Suppose you saw a coupon good for 20% off all winter coats, but when you get to the store you're told, “Oh, it's not good on red coats.” Or imagine seeing a car ad, “20% off all Chevrolets,” but when you get to the dealership you're told that it's only good on four-door sedans.

There's a term for this. It's called bait and switch. Get the customer into the store and then change the terms.

What happened at Office Depot was not a bait and switch per se, but it still wasn't good customer relations. Yes, I understand that the company is taking a hit pricing its backpacks at $2.99 and that an additional 60-cent discount hurts even more. But that's a cost of doing business: Advertise something really cheaply and hope people buy enough other things to make the loss leader worthwhile.

Certainly any company is within its rights to limit coupon use on loss leaders. But if that's what corporate wants, then corporate needs to be very clear, and it needs to do so on the coupon. I don't want to rely on the personal interpretation of a cash register. Or a manager with a headache.

J.D.'s note: I'm proud of Donna for standing up for herself. It can seem ludicrous to fight bureaucracy for just a few bucks, but I make a point of doing it, too. (Read “I want my four dollars!” for a real-life example from the early days of Get Rich Slowly. I love that story.) Later today I'll share another tale of fighting corporate madness. Photos by The Consumerist and mlcastle.

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BK
BK
12 years ago

Ha! This reminds me so much of The Office episode where Micheal orders 8 pizzas and has a half off coupon. The delivery boy says it only works for up to 2 pizzas, but it doesn’t say that on the coupon! So they proceed to to hold the delivery boy against his will. Funny Stuff.

Meoip
Meoip
12 years ago

Good for her. Many of these stores have started using vague terms on coupons like “not valid on technology”. I’m not sure what technology really is. The man in line in front of me wanted to use a 20% off coupon on a graphing calculator which the store called technology. I’m not sure I call a TI84 technology (if I can buy it at a drug store is it really technology?). The man seemed nice so I stepped up to help. I grabbed a cheap calculator off the shelf put it on the counter and asked the other cashier if… Read more »

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

I stopped going to a particular grocery store because they refused to honor coupons I had printed on my computer, even though their corporate policy didn’t ban them. So the grocery store saved themselves a few dollars that day, but lost thousands over the long term. While I don’t think the customer is always right (sometimes they’re trying to get away with something they shouldn’t), in your case Office Depot wasted lots of time over $3 and potentially lost a long term customer. That’s a terrible corporate policy if they want people to actually come back to their store.

RDS
RDS
12 years ago

I love seeing others fight for every penny. I find that I either am careful with my money or I am not. Being careful with large amounts but not paying attention to pennies and dollars just isn’t possible for me. I have spent a significant portion of my adult life living in countries outside the United States and have been fortunate enough to be exempt from foreign taxes. In every country I lived in sales clerks regularly told me that they did not know how to ring up a sale without tax. Most of them never understood why I was… Read more »

Umar in Dubai
Umar in Dubai
12 years ago

This is a very good example of why small things matter. Good job!!

Eric
Eric
12 years ago

This has everything to do with holding a business accountable to keeping their word. You were right to keep your ground and not give in!

half-baked
half-baked
12 years ago

Great story! I agree, it’s difficult to justify 10 minutes for a $3 savings, but your supporting argument changed my mind.

The thing is, these large companies seldom err on the side of the consumer. The consumer is expected to read the fine print, so the corporations should be held to the same standard. $3, in this case, is the difference of a disadvantaged kid having a backpack. $3 in the corporation’s hands is not even a drop in the bucket.

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

No thanks. This is a “battle” I will always skip. I can assure you that Office Depot is not trying to pull a fast one, because the last thing they need is a bunch of clogged up register lines. And remember that store-level employees WANT this stuff to work. The last thing they need is a difficult transaction like this. They want your coupon to work because it makes their lives easier. Of course anyone willing to make a scene will almost always get their way because the store manager cannot afford to make other customers angry because of their… Read more »

Scott
Scott
12 years ago

The idea that the manager even attempted to thwart the use of the coupon is outrageous. These big box stores stand to lose a lot of credibility in a hurry with today’s blogosphere.

EG
EG
12 years ago

“My personal preference is to make enough money that $3 is not a concern. Thanks.”

Why do posts like this always get people like Kevin commenting on them?

Jennifer
Jennifer
12 years ago

I am glad she stood up for herself and using the coupon. Stores need to be more clear on their policies. I have found that many cashiers are very confused over how coupons work and stores need to do better about training them. I had a similar experience at Target over cheese coupons. It was a nightmare, but I stood my ground and they honored the coupons. Unfortunately most people give up immediately and of course that is what the stores are hoping we do.

Arlene
Arlene
12 years ago

I agree with Kevin #5 The world isn’t out to get all of us and screw us all out of our three dollars. No one who managed to get a coupon to work when the store claimed it wouldn’t isn’t changing lives. Websites like the Consumerist have bred an Us vs. Them attitude that is useful when a company is legitimately pulling a fast one (lowering product sizes, keeping prices) but has unfortunately led to the symptom of entitlement among millions of consumers everywhere. I would hesitate to argue that the customer is not always right. Besides, what a waste… Read more »

Cashier
Cashier
12 years ago

The clerk was right about what one time use means though, or at least that has always been my understanding of the term. They don’t need it for the next day because they take it away when you use it.

Ellie
Ellie
12 years ago

I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me on multiple occasions. I’ve also had the weird experience of a cashier ringing something else wrong, then they whine about fixing it. Here’s the run-down: I was buying kale, which is by the bunch. The cashier accidentally rung it up twice (I heard 2 beeps), and then they quickly shoved it in a bag. I said “excuse me, but I believe you just rung that up twice”. The guy said “that’s because there is 2 bunches”. I asked him to check the bag, he would see it was only one bunch… Read more »

B
B
12 years ago

Good post. Reminds me of the Consumerist.

PS-I know it’s merely for illustration, but the picture you posted is one of Target. You should use one of an Office Depot or something more generic.

Jean
Jean
12 years ago

This is a great illustration of how much customer service has gone down hill in the last fifteen years or so. I worked the cashiers at Wal-Mart in the early ’90s, and our general store policy was that if a customer haggled over a couple of bucks, cheerfully let them have their way, keep them happy and coming back, and keep the line moving. That sort of thinking just doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in large chain retail.

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

Hurrah! I did this for years at the grocery store. They were notorious for overcharging, or not recognizing sale prices. Not overtly I’m sure. They were probably just sloppy about updating their scanner-registers. It became a game for me, and an incentive to get my kids to behave well at the store. (We got double the item price refunded, and the kids could keep it.) My hard work did pay off, over time I caught errors less often. I did recently discover that to get double the difference I have to pay the bill, then go to customer service. If… Read more »

Don Young
Don Young
12 years ago

Keep in mind the cashier is probably the lowest paid employee in the store… They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t NEED the job. The cashier is not out to screw you. They are just trying to get thru the day and keep thier job. Instead of tying up the cashier and manager (as well as other customers in line) send a letter to corporate. Outline the problem, be specific, and ask for a remedy.. You will probably get a coupon or gift card for more than the amount in question and you have let corporate know that we comsumers… Read more »

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
12 years ago

The manager should have just overrided the sale right away instead of arguing with you. Sheesh.

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

@Ellie – I agree that you received some very rude service. But the mistake was corrected. When I find myself in your position I try to bear in mind that cashiers and store clerks are human beings too. Maybe the cashier was sick that day. Maybe there was a fight with the spouse. Maybe his/her kids are having problems in school. The point is, not everything requires a talk with the manager. If they insisted on over-charging you, then yes, that requires a visit with the manager. Otherwise, sometimes the charitable thing to do is turn the other cheek and… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
12 years ago

This story really turned my stomach, perhaps because my mother has been in retail management for years. Corporate really DOES control these decisions most of the time, and this kind of behavior on the manager’s part often results in disciplinary actions. While you saved a few bucks, you may have cost that woman her job for not adhering to corporate policy. Store managers at big box companies absolutely DO NOT have the power to make these kinds of decisions. While you might think you’re fighting “the man” or at least “Office Depot”, “Nancy” is really the only one you’re fighting.… Read more »

Tony
Tony
12 years ago

When I’m confronted by someone telling me that the store or company intended something other than what the coupon says, I simply point out that they’re not bound by what they intended to say, they’re bound by what they said. It’s also worth noting that there will be times when the store manager simply won’t back down. If you leave the store unsatisfied, definitely file a complaint with corporate on the store’s web site. There are plenty of sources of advice on how to write an effective complaint letter, but the basics are that you should be polite, be factual,… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

I’ve actually had the OPPOSITE occur to me. I was purchasing some clothing and had a $10 off coupon. I hadn’t realized it was expired, but the cashier gave me the discount anyway. About a week later I was making some purchases at Canadian Tire (big box store), and I knew my coupon expired the day before, but I thought I’d try it. The cashier said it was expired, but then asked if I had a few minutes. I said I did. She then went and found a coupon that was printed in the local paper for $10 off, photocopied… Read more »

Cashier
Cashier
12 years ago

In regards to what Kevin said, sometimes when you get to a cashier you might be the 100th, 200th or even 500th person they have dealt with that day you don’t know how rude those people before you have been, and sometimes it just adds up. It’s unfortunate and it doesn’t excuse rudeness, it is another thing to keep in mind though.

Also anyone who has never worked retail might be shocked at how many people treat cashiers as subhuman.

Solomon
Solomon
12 years ago

I agree that standing up for yourself was the right thing to do as you were correct. If the coupon did not say that it did not apply to sales items, then you should have been able to use it regardless of the fact that the register did not read it. Nevertheless, I diagree with your examples that you used. It is in no way the same as going to a store selling winter coats and then they tell you it does not apply to Red Coats only. Office Depot was making the argument that it did not apply to… Read more »

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
12 years ago

At 10 minutes into the conversation, you’ve tied up the manager + cashier for 20 billable minutes of wages. That alone, one would think, should surpass the $3 “loss” the company is trying to save.

I’ve done this back in the day with cold-calling telemarketers and a few times in person at stores, similar to this instance. Point out that the clock is ticking and while they are arguing with you, it costs the company money each minute they sit there and argue a petty fact with you. This usually really irritates them =)

DG
DG
12 years ago

Recently I went to best buy with two coupons, one which was 12% with their rewards card and one which was 10% regardless. I bought two items, one more expensive than the other, but both were valid for either coupon. Obviously I wanted the higher priced item to get the 12% off, so I specifically asked the cashier if it would work that way, because I’d buy the items one at a time if I needed. I was reassured, but it didn’t go through that way at all. The lady at the customer service practically argued with me that there… Read more »

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
12 years ago

This reminds me of a case I learned about in law school. In 1957, a woman bought a pair of jeans on sale for $8. When she found out the zipper was broken, she came back and asked for a refund or a replacement. The store refused. Then she stopped payment of the check that she had used to pay for the jeans, had the zipper repaired herself for $2, and offered to pay the store the difference of $6. The store refused her offer, demanded full payment of the original price of the jeans which was $13.98, and, when… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

I totally agree that it’s worth saving the money, and we should all demand accountability but please please please take it easy on the young ones. I spent many years as a cashier, and at 16 years old working part time having a customer “prove a point” regarding something I had yet to fully understand was a really awful experience. Ask for a manager, remain calm, some of these kids are still learning and only repeating what they’ve been taught.

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

I work part-time at a moderate department store. Just a few days ago, a customer flew into a rage because the items she wanted to purchase were CLEARLY excluded on the coupons she had. She had such a fit, the next customer actually took several steps back. She ranted and raved about how “they give you this coupon just to get you in the store and then you can’t use it”. Yes, ma’am, every merchant uses coupons to get you into their store. They can be used, if you follow the rules. It is no different than driving down the… Read more »

Autumn
Autumn
12 years ago

I think part of the problem is that people tend to have bad reactions to coupons. I’m not sure why. I was once using several coupons at a Walgreens to buy some makeup. The store had the makeup on sale (buy one, get one free), and I had some manufacturer’s coupons for the brand. Something like $2 off each item. The coupons were limited 1 per item, not one per customer or transaction. So I brought several coupons. As I went to check out, the store manager told me repeatedly that I was committing “coupon fraud”. He said it wasn’t… Read more »

will
will
12 years ago

This is such a poor example of bait and switch…

And I agree with Kevin: it’s $3 – let it go girl…

jeff
jeff
12 years ago

It kept being said that it was only $3. No, it was only 60 cents. And your battle is with corporate not the kid who has nothing to go on other than what the register says. I as the cashier will give 60cents to people like you just to make you go away and make everybody elses life a little bit smoother, i.e. all those people in line behind you. karma will take that 60 cents from your grubby little hands soon enough anyways.

Kim
Kim
12 years ago

I’ve worked retail on and off for about 10 years, and yeah, Office Depot should have honored the coupon without question since it didn’t say anything about not being valid with sale items. I’m uneasy about the sort of things that people do with coupons, like Autumn #18 was describing, but mostly from the cashier’s point of view. Depending on the retailer, it’s entirely possible that a cashier could get into significant trouble doing some of those things.

UncleMidriff
UncleMidriff
12 years ago

Congratulations. You wasted your own 10 minutes, the 10 minutes of the register operator, the 10 minutes of the manager, and the 10 minutes of each person behind you in line…for $3. Victory! Don’t get me wrong, I agree that they shouldn’t have such undisclosed rules regarding their coupons, but three dollars? Seriously? You were willing to create a huge amount of stress (I’ve worked retail; dealing with customers like you is hugely stressful, even when they’re in the right) and waste 10 minutes of your time for three dollars? “Oh, but it wasn’t just about $3! I won a… Read more »

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

Meanwhile, I’m the guy in line stuck behind you.

I just popped in to buy some pens.

It ended up taking over 20 minutes because of you.

I’m self-employed and bill my time at $100 an hour.

I’m glad you saved $3. You just cost me $30.

Belinda
Belinda
12 years ago

I definitely see Donna’s point of view and would want the 20% discount for myself as well. But I can also see Office Depot printing “not valid with sale items” on their coupons in the future as a result of this.

Pamela
Pamela
12 years ago

It concerns me that certain people can treat money so indifferently. When I was a poor college student, $3 was really the difference between me suffering from hunger symptoms for a day or having a decent day at school. $3 is a big deal for so many people, it’s water, it’s food, it’s transportation and it kills me that $3 can be so insignificant. I’m no longer poor, but i know first hand what it’s like to be in that situation, where you’re actually counting your savings in dimes and happy to have “gourmet” ramen in your roach infested bachelor.… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

While I understand the sentiment of the “move on, it’s only $3” crowd, I completely disagree with them. I strongly believe that it’s important for consumers to stand up for their rights in cases like this. And it’s perfectly possible to do it, as Donna did, while being polite and not taking it out on the employees. On the other hand, I do agree with many commenters that taking this too far can breed an Us vs. Them attitude that’s counter-productive. Be polite. Fight only for what is fair. Melissa A. (#19) is right: the correct response from the manager… Read more »

Maria
Maria
12 years ago

I cannot count the number of times I have had to FIGHT for a few cents, but I know it makes a difference in my pocket each & every time I insist that the company stick to their word. We are meant to stick to ours, when we use our debit card to pay them or write a check assuming we have enough money in the account to cover it. When we don’t hold up our end of the bargain we get slapped with fees & nasty phone calls & letters because we have to stick to our word. It’s… Read more »

Rosie
Rosie
12 years ago

The problem for me is corporations. There is such a disconnect with people because corporations are run soley for profit. That is why I think people see this a such a triumph.

A separate issue is paying low wages for these jobs, no job security, etc. Corporate thinking eliminates the person and focuses on the costs.

Don’t shop at a corporate store. Patronize those few shops left where you can talk to the actual owner, or their manager, in the store.

Maria
Maria
12 years ago

#36 Matt: This is when you need to be a more mindful consumer & ask someone to open a new register so that you can go on your merry way while others are trying to make sure the “Big Guy” sticks to his word. Obviously, you don’t know the value of $3.00 to those of us who don’t make $100.00 an hour. And why are you billing someone while you’re buying pens?

The CFO
The CFO
12 years ago

Retailers send out fliers and catalogs with misprints all the time. Let’s put them all out of business by holding them to their error and make them sell me a $300 item for $49. Yeah!

Sometimes you should consider what it’s like when the shoe is on the other foot.

Janet
Janet
12 years ago

Rock on Donna Freedman! It’s nice to know that there are other people who care about a few dollars.

If I didn’t look over my utility bills and credit card statements, and then take a couple hours a month making phone calls to fix errors – I would be out $50 to $100 per month.

Every little bit adds up.

B B
B B
12 years ago

I have regularly had to fight with my local grocery store and (chain) drug store for not having their sale prices in the scanners. For example, “Kraft Pudding (various flavors)” will be on sale, and the sign is in the are of all the puddings — but when I check out, the butterscotch flavor doesn’t ring up with the rest of them on sale. Also, the drug store recently changed its “buy one get one” policy from the (standard) that you can buy one at half price to “you have to pay full price for the first one and then… Read more »

Patti S
Patti S
12 years ago

Reminds me of my fight with McDonalds’ whose $1 large drinks only if you don’t order it with a value meal then its $1.49!!

Annie Jones
Annie Jones
12 years ago

I had similar incident recently when a fast food coupon I had didn’t ring through correctly. The entire meal should have been for $3.00, but it rang up at $3.58. Yes, I argued over the 58¢. The young man at the register wasn’t able to override the coupon, so I asked for the manager. She looked at the coupon and decided that yes, indeed, the register was scanning it incorrectly. She gave me my 58¢. Was it worth it? Yes, I think so. The small amount, in and of itself, wouldn’t make or break me, but it would determine whether… Read more »

margaret
margaret
12 years ago

You know, I would probably PAY $3 not to have to fight with people for half an hour to get my way over something so small. And I don’t have $3 to spare.

tom Feldsten
tom Feldsten
12 years ago

The consumer was getting a great deal on backpacks, and was going beyond greedy to expect more. Just because the legalese wasn’t printed on the coupon doesn’t mean that the consumer was right to expect to get the discount. People like this consumer are make this such a litigious society. And this WAS NOT Bait and Switch, and to even use that phrase in this example totally overplays the consumer’s hand in this. However, the manager should have immediately applied the 20% discount. There are some consumers who you can make happy only by making them feel as though they… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
12 years ago

“Meanwhile, I’m the guy in line stuck behind you. I just popped in to buy some pens. It ended up taking over 20 minutes because of you. I’m self-employed and bill my time at $100 an hour. I’m glad you saved $3. You just cost me $30.” If you are performing a legitimate opportunity cost analysis to shopping for pens, and you are actually turning down available work at a rate of $100/hr, then you are a fool for going to Office Depot in the first place. A fool. You should have ordered your pens from Amazon in the first… Read more »

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