Marines look through coupons at the commissary at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. (Marine Corps)
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Coupons redeemed in 2011 at military stores by number/value:
Commissary Agency: 123 million/$110 million
Army and Air Force
Exchange Service: 2.4 million/$5.7 million
Navy Exchange: 1.6 million/$2.3 million
Coupons are like cash — and they've been producing a lot of it for some commissary shoppers.
But if you're an "extreme couponer" who has used coupons to get large sums of cash back at the commissary register, take heed: Stores are cracking down.
As of May 1, Defense Commissary Agency policy will clarify that certain extreme couponing practices can be considered abuse of the commissary privilege, such as buying excessive amounts of one item with coupons that exceed the value of the product. If you're suspected of privilege abuse, you could be reported to installation officials — who can suspend or permanently revoke commissary privileges.
Also as of May 1, customers who present coupons that result in "overages" no longer may receive unlimited cash back. Instead, you'll get commissary gift cards for refunds of more than $25. Overages of less than $25 will be refunded in cash. For example, if you have a negative balance of $35.99, you'd get a gift card for $25 and $10.99 in cash.
"The average coupon user might not notice the policy changes because they are aimed at preventing possible misuse of the commissary benefit — primarily using coupons to get large amounts of cash back," said Joseph Jeu, DeCA director and CEO, in a statement announcing the change.
Overages happen when the face value of the coupon exceeds the price of the item. Most manufacturer coupons are geared to prices in civilian stores; commissary prices are already discounted.
‘The worst abusers'
Over the past three years, DeCA officials have seen more customers getting cash back when they use coupons, said Courtney Rogers, DeCA's customer relations specialist.
"Using gift cards to cover coupon ‘overages' discourages practices contrary to DeCA's mission," which is to provide a benefit that sells groceries at cost, she said.
The changes "will help bring our policies in line with our retail counterparts and protect the commissary benefit," she said.
Most coupon overage transactions happen during customers' normal household shopping. The overages are applied to the rest of the transaction, so little or no cash is due to the customer.
"However, there have been instances of customers purchasing large quantities of one or two products using multiple coupons, resulting in large overages," Rogers said.
Commissaries are among the few grocery stores that allow refunds for overages, said Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corp., a not-for-profit association of consumer product manufacturers that fights coupon fraud.
Unlike the commissaries, none of the military exchanges allows coupons to exceed the value of an item, nor do they allow overages.
Why does DeCA allow these overages at all? Unlike other stores — and military exchanges — DeCA does not generate a profit.
"Since manufacturers reimburse us for those overages, we would profit from those overages if we did not refund that money to the customer," Rogers said.
A small number of people have received hundreds of dollars in cash back from commissaries, and among them are people who just want the cash, said Miller. "Those are the worst abusers."
Whether in commissaries or in other stores, Miller said, there have been cases in which people bought as much as they could with coupons and not only got cash back but then resold the products for a profit.
"It's a small minority of abusers who make it more difficult for the honest couponers," he said — to include emptying the shelves for other customers.
The extreme couponing trend has caused civilian grocery stores to make changes, such as limiting the number of the same item you can buy with coupons in one shopping trip.
DeCA will continue its policy of limiting coupons to one per item, meaning you'll still be able to buy multiple packages of the same product as long as you have multiple coupons. As before, the exception is during a particular commissary promotion, when a manufacturer or distributor provides coupons directly to the commissary.
Store officials will monitor excessive coupon use. Examples of "suspected privilege abuse" in the revised policy include buying "excessive quantities of an individual item" — more than three cases or 36 units — "with coupons that exceed the value of the product."
Large quantities targeted
DeCA also is cracking down on "abuse" that doesn't necessarily involve coupons.
Buying more than 36 units of any item — as well as frequently buying large quantities of cigarettes or tobacco products, exceeding one case or 30 units — may not in itself be considered abuse, but it raises a red flag that there may be the potential for abuse, Rogers said.
On the commissary section of the site WeUseCoupons.com, some spouses in large families expressed concern about being under suspicion if they bought large quantities of items with coupons.
Several said they were fine with the new policy of paying the overage in gift cards.
"Keeping the money ‘in-house' is still better than no overage at all," one spouse said. "I can always find something at the commissary to put that [money] toward." The new policy also requires gift cards to be issued, rather than cash, when merchandise costing more than $25 is being returned without the original receipt.