Saving at the supermarket used to be simple: Everyone got the sale price. Then, stores began offering loyalty cards, which required customers to scan a plastic card or key in their phone number at checkout to activate discounts. Now, many grocery store chains are replacing those loyalty cards with smartphone apps.
You've seen the ads proclaiming, "Go digital and save even more!" To do this, though, you must have a smartphone. Then you download an app and create an account, or use your phone number to link it to your existing loyalty card. Once a week — or sometimes more often — the store issues digital coupons. Before each shopping trip, you must open the app, sort through the available coupons, choose the ones you want and click to add each one to your account.
When you check out, you either scan your plastic loyalty card (or a digital replica on your phone) or key in your phone number. That activates all the "clipped" coupons. If there are no glitches at checkout — such as coupons not activating — you get the advertised savings. Otherwise, you pay the full price.
According to Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky, who examines weekly store sale circulars, shoppers who don't use a store's loyalty app could pay two to three times more for a sale item. The process can be confusing, though. An informal survey of Consumer World readers in September found 1 in 3 consumers could not explain how to get the digital-only price. "I'm able to do it, but not everyone can," Dworsky says.
Dworsky and other consumer advocates say these app-centric grocery deals could penalize the digitally disconnected. "Millions of senior citizens who don't use the internet or own a smartphone, as well as lower-income shoppers without broadband access, are shut out of these offers. Loyalty apps are a way to give fewer and fewer people the advertised sales price," Dworsky says.
The apps have pros and cons, says Adam Schwartz, president of CouponSurfer. On the positive side, consumers get savings on products and can select the specific coupons they want.
"The bad is you manually have to select each coupon," he says. "It's time-consuming. Some apps are difficult to work with, and performance varies."
"Shopping should not be work," says Jeff Kagan, a technology industry analyst in Atlanta who shops at multiple supermarkets.
"Different stores have different apps. Some have no app. You can clip in advance, but many of us don't," he says. "So, often you stand in front of an item you found on sale. You have to open the app, open the phone camera, scan a bar code and only then get the sale price.
"The average customer doesn't have the time or desire to do so," he adds. "In my opinion, these stores are using technology to improve sales but losing a segment who don't want to play the game."
Using an app means you grant stores the right to track your buying habits, whether it's how many doughnuts you buy or your favorite brand of spaghetti sauce. While that tracking can be beneficial — some stores send coupons for the products you buy most often or alert you to product recalls — it can feel intrusive.
Not everyone dislikes the apps. Susan von Seggern, a Los Angeles publicist, opens the app for Ralphs once a week, reviews the coupons and then "clips" the ones she thinks she or her husband might use. "Then, I go to the clipped tab and sort by expiration date, look at those expiring within six days on items I want and put those on a written grocery list to make sure I buy them before the deals expire," she says.
Von Seggern gets a thrill from seeing a checkout total of $230 drop to $200 after applying her loyalty card. In addition, her purchases translate into points for up to $1 off per gallon of gas when she fills up at a Ralphs station. The savings add up, she says, to 20% to 30% each week.
Here are some ways those who are unwilling or unable to deal with smartphone grocery apps can still garner savings.
Shop stores that don't use loyalty programs.
A handful of supermarkets still allow all shoppers to receive the best price on their purchases. Publix, a grocery chain in the southeastern United States, doesn't require an app to get sale prices. On occasion, Publix includes paper coupons in their store fliers for extra savings, but anyone can redeem them. You may even want to consider a big-box retailer such as Walmart or Target.
Search for alternatives to digital.
Some Safeway and Albertsons stores offer "clip or click" coupons that give shoppers the choice between paper and digital versions. Every week, you can click on a deal within the app or clip a paper coupon out of the weekly flier. Another chain, H-E-B, places physical coupons next to sale items in the store but also offers the option of digital clipping.
Share a card.
If privacy is a concern, Schwartz suggests gathering a group of friends and joining a loyalty program with a single phone number and email address.
Check for kiosks.
Schwartz has seen some stores install kiosks where you input your phone number or swipe your rewards card to automatically add customized offers to your loyalty account. These offers, which kick in when you scan your card at checkout, are on top of the savings offered to all rewards card users.
Clip manufacturers' coupons.
The number of newspaper coupon inserts is diminishing, but you'll still find some in newspapers [including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette], and there are print-at-home coupons on websites such as CouponSurfer, Coupons.com, P&G Good Everyday and even some supermarket websites.
No app? Ask for the deal anyway.
Cashiers can often use a generic in-store loyalty card they keep at the register to charge you the digital price upon request. Ask when you are checking out.
Make your voice heard.
If you feel strongly about these apps, take your concerns to a manager. Even better, call the company's 800 number or get the store to give you an email or address for their corporate office and fire off a complaint. Says Dworsky, "If enough shoppers keep making the request for offline alternatives to apps, maybe the stores will hear and make changes."