Zip Code Couponing | Is It Right or Is It Wrong?

by Beth Montgomery on March 7, 2012 · 12 comments

in Coupons & Rebates, Tips & Basics

Zip code couponing. I’ve mentioned it before, but it always comes up again and again.

It sounds official, doesn’t it? Like a type of coupon fraud. Or maybe like a trick you need to learn to save more money.

Which is it? I think that’s up to you.

What is zip code couponing?

Zip code couponing is simply entering a zip code outside of your shopping area to get printable coupons not available in your area on printable coupon sites.

Zip Code Pop-Up on SmartSource.com

Most legitimate printable coupon sites offer you the option of entering a zip code to get more coupons, such as coupons only available in your area or for local products and services. However, if you enter other zip codes, you can often find higher-value or rare coupons not otherwise available to you.

I get asked almost daily what zip code I used to find a coupon or to include zip codes with coupons, but I never do. I do have my own personal reasons.

The Debate

Argument For

Argument Against

It’s a form of bias and discrimination to only offer coupons to certain areas, just like limiting them to people of a certain race. Manufacturers limit coupons to a certain area for many reasons like:

  • Increase sales in an area
  • Successfully launch or release a product in a certain area
  • Don’t have the funds to release a coupon nationwide
  • Test certain coupons in certain markets
  • And many other reasons we may never imagine

It’s not bias or discriminating. It’s marketing. It’s the same as limiting a sale in a certain area or a coupon code to new customers.

Companies wouldn’t restrict them, if they didn’t have a reason, regardless of if we agree with that reason or not.

Coupon sites don’t proactively stop websites from sharing zip codes. A firm letter to all of their affiliates that says “knock it off” would stop most of it. By turning a blind eye, they get more prints and appear to be performing much better than they would if it was really limited to only a certain area. It makes them look better to their customers. When directly asked if it’s okay to share zip codes on websites or blogs, every representatives from coupon sites that I have personally asked has told me no, that it’s not okay for me to share zip codes with you.
If coupon sites didn’t want you to enter different zip codes, they why would they give you the option to enter a zip code at all? And why do they allow you to change it?If they were worried about it, they could use geolocation technology like Groupon to detect your location upon your arrival and only ask for a zip code if it can’t be determined or have you create an account, so you can’t change your zip code at whim. The option to enter a zip code is to get more coupons available in only your area. It you don’t want to enter a zip code, you don’t have to. It’s not so you can enter whatever zip code appeals to you at the moment.Plus, you are allowed to change your zip code in case you are traveling, to get coupons for vacation and when you’re not at your home. And, so you can get coupons for areas where you redeem them, since many of us shop in many different local zip codes. Not so you can get coupons for intended for areas you never intend to shop.
It’s not illegal. While it’s not a law, it is part of your contract with these coupon sites. The coupon sites have Terms of Use, which you agree to when using the site and printing coupons. In most of these terms, you agree to provide true and accurate information and entering a false zip code is in violation and could result in losing your account.
More often than not, it doesn’t say on the coupons that it’s only redeemable in select cities or areas. If manufacturer’s cared, they could easily add this. If a coupon was intended to target 1,000 zip codes or 100 cities for example, the coupon would have to be huge to accommodate the full list. It’s really not feasible. To meet their goals and targets, they require a zip code to print the coupon and the text found on almost all coupons saying it’s void if not redeemed as intended.
Other stores in other cities still take the coupon. Stores in other cities have no way of knowing if you entered false information to get the coupon. In many situations, they have to trust that you legitimately obtained the coupon. While the store does have responsibilities, the consumer also has their own responsibilities. Ethical couponing does not fall entirely on the shoulders of the manufacturer or the stores.
It’s not unethical to shop at store that’s not within your zip code, so I should be able to print a coupon that’s not within my zipcode. Typically coupons are available to all the zip codes within an area. It would be extremely rare to find a coupon that is available where you live, but not at the store down the street. If manufacturer’s are targeting a certain area, printing coupons within the zip codes you shop would help them with their goal. The issue is when you print coupons in areas you do not plan to shop and area’s not even within reasonable driving distance.
It’s no different than buying a newspaper at an airport from another city or exchanging coupons with a friend from another town, then bringing them home to use. Manufacture’s expect a minimal number of coupons to be relocated by natural means, but not hundreds of thousand by tricking the system. The number of people buying a newspaper from one city while traveling or exchanging coupons with a friend is minimal. However, with the internet, by publicly releasing zip codes to find more coupons, the number of coupons redeemed outside of intended areas increases substantially. It’s like comparing the views of a home movie to the views of a YouTube video.
It’s no different than purchasing coupons online from coupon clippers or on eBay. The Coupon Information Center recently added “buying coupons” to their “Strictly Prohibited” list. They even went on to specify that adding a legal disclaimer that the site is selling their time clipping coupons and not coupons themselves, still voids the terms of the coupon and does not offer any legal protection.
It doesn’t hurt anyone. If the manufacturer’s goal is to increase sales in an area or something similar, their campaign may be hurt and may even be seen as a failure. Which, in the future, could cause them to release less coupons. Taking advantage of the system often has a negative impact on all couponers.
The store gets reimbursed either way. When asked at BlogHer in 2010, Red Plum stated that the store would “not necessarily” be reimbursed if a coupon is redeemed in an area where it is not intended for use.
It’s only a little white lie. It’s still a lie.

Zip Code Couponing on In Good Cents

Coupons.com Terms of Use as of March 6, 2012

There is a huge difference between you printing coupons from another zip code and me encouraging the thousands of readers who visit In Good Cents daily to do so.

I realize it’s probably not being “policed” right now. But, if, in the future, they do decide to enforce this term, you’re simply at risk of losing your account or privileges on a website. However, by publicly telling others to violate any website’s Terms of Use, I could potentially be opening the door to a law suit.

For that reason, and because I’ve built relationships with many of the coupon sites and manufacturers and want to honor those relationships by respecting their decisions, I do not share zip codes on In Good Cents. And, to protect myself and my readers, I do delete, or edit any comments or posts sharing zip codes on In Good Cents’ outlets including Facebook.

My Personal Opinion

There are so many things in this world that horrible, but printing coupons from other zip codes doesn’t really make a bleep on my radar. If you choose to do so, I won’t judge. I really don’t care at all. I think it’s a personal decision. One you should make, based on your opinion of this debate. I’ve heard all sides and they all have great points.

However, in case you were wondering, I do practice what I preach. Many readers have looked over my shoulder to check out my coupons when I’m at a grocery store. I don’t mind, but I want to avoid the awkwardness of being seen with these types of coupons. Especially since I don’t share zip codes on In Good Cents.

For that reason, I do tend to be a bit strict on myself when it comes to couponing ethics and always pick the road that appears safest (though I do make mistakes, since I’m only human). And, to be completely honest, there are so many deals available, missing the few coupons not available in my area does not hurt me or my family (or our budget) at all.

What are your thoughts on zip code couponing? Is it unethical?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephanie March 7, 2012 at 12:03 PM

I don’t think it’s unethical. The zips are out there as is the coupons. Unless it says restricted in a certain state, what DOES it matter? In this day and age, groceries are expensive. Manufacturers WANT you to buy their products. If it means saving a bit more to have that product, then they should just make the value the same no matter what your zip is. To me, it’s no difference than buying the better or high value coupons on eBay. They all work hand-in-hand. It’s a win/win all around.

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2 Claire J. March 7, 2012 at 12:56 PM

Did you actually read the article? She addresses every single point you bring up. But, she also said she’s not for or against it. But, since it is in the Terms of Use for the sites we are all using, she feels telling all of us to ignore what is technically a contract we are agreeing to by using the site could cause her possible legal problems. It makes perfect sense. I never thought about it like that before.

I didn’t know it was in the Terms of Use, but I went to look and she’s right. It’s there. So, I think she’s smart. If they ever did decide to take action, they could sue her. Maybe they wouldn’t get anything, but it would still cost her legal fees to fight it. It’s not worth losing her site. Or even if a reader loses their account for violating the terms, that reader could sue her for loss of savings or some silly nonsense like that if she told them to use a different zip code, which is basically telling them to violate the their agreement with the site. Suing for stupid reasons happens all too often anymore, so I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m shocked more bloggers haven’t thought about this and taken as similar stance, honestly. I think they should now that I’ve heard it put like this.

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3 Lori Carter March 7, 2012 at 1:07 PM

This post was extremely helpful to me. I’ve been going back and forth on this issue myself and you gave me lots more to think about. I never thought about the fact that some stores may not get the money back from the manufacturer if the coupon is used in the wrong area. I do not want that to happen.

Although it may mean missing out on some coupons every once in a while, I probably would have to side with you on this. I want to be sure myself, and my readers, understand the rules and don’t try to break them. Thanks for making me more aware on this topic.

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4 Beth March 7, 2012 at 1:38 PM

Lori, I debate this all the time, honestly. I can argue this topic in circles. I think that’s even what I did here a bit, LOL. I even struggle with saying there’s a “rule” against it. But, when I thought about it from the “Terms of Use are a contract” angle, it changed things. I really don’t think it’s enforced at all, obviously, but I’m a better safe than sorry kind of person. And you never know when things could change. And, as Claire said, a reader could sue me if I told them to print from a certain zip code and they actually did end up losing their account for providing false information. I hope no one would do that and I’m sure the chances for that situation are very slim, but I just read that a woman sued Wolfgang Puck because she fell off of the toilet in one of his restaurants. I don’t think I’d want to make it public knowledge that I couldn’t even sit on a toilet without falling.

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5 Lori Carter March 7, 2012 at 1:56 PM

LOL! Me neither. :)

I will definitely be sharing your post with my readers and I won’t be sharing zip codes in the future. I don’t want to risk a reader losing an account or the possibility of being sued.

I always want to be sure I’m following the rules of couponing too, even if the rule isn’t being enforced.

Thanks again! :)

6 Caity March 7, 2012 at 2:44 PM

Personally, I don’t mind doing it, telling people about it, buying coupons from a site like Dede or inserts from Sundays.. I also use college computer labs to print sometimes 40 or 50 coupons (2 per pc – 100+ pc’s in the library).. If I lived in a city that had newspaper coupons (we get 1 of each SS/RP/P&G mailed per household, no extras in paper) I’d never resort to what I do.

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7 Hanna March 7, 2012 at 3:30 PM

And if I made more money than I wouldn’t have to resort to robbing banks.

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8 Becky Lee March 7, 2012 at 10:36 PM

I didn’t know about this until I saw a post about a $5 Kellogg coupon & everyone was asking what zip code. Was wondering what it was all about. I wondered if it was OK to use other zip codes. The only time I use a different zip code is when I’m going on vacation. Thanks to this article that will continue to be the only time I use a different zip code.

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9 Stacey March 8, 2012 at 10:13 AM

Caity – I am curious as to what you buy in quantities of 40-50 with your coupons? I’m all for stocking up, but 40-50 seems like a lot. Also, I don’t know that the 2 per pc rule applies to as many pcs as you can get your hands on – I think it really means computers you own. Do you have to pay for the pages you print?

Any thoughts from anyone on the practice of hitting the back button to get coupons to print a second time? I was doing that without thinking about it, but have recently stopped as I have felt it maybe isn’t right/fair.

Beth, I appreciate your integrity with all of this.

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10 Beth March 8, 2012 at 3:26 PM

Stacey, I usually do hit the back button to print coupons a second time. The manufacturer’s actually have the right to set the per person print limit. Sometimes they allow only 1 print per computer, sometimes 2 prints per computer, etc… the default is 2, but they are allowed to request only 1 if they’d like. So they are aware you are printing each coupon twice. It’s just like on Coupons.com and other printable coupon sites when you print coupons, then go back, the coupons are there to print again (except for a few rare coupons with a 1 per person print limit). And, once you print them again, they disappear, because you can only print them each twice. Basically, the manufacturer (or whoever releases the coupon) made the decision to let your print it twice!

Thanks. I appreciate your integrity too. So much crazy stuff is going on right now and so many just aren’t thinking about it, and in the end, it hurts us all, because stores tighten rules and some have even started treating couponers like criminals. It’s sad, but I can see why it’s happening so clear.

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11 Trish March 13, 2012 at 3:10 PM

I think in the grand scheme of things, zip code couponing is incredibly benign compared to what some people are doing. If the manufacturer’s were really that concerned about such campaigns, they wouldn’t be putting coupons on the internet, where anyone, regardless of their real zip code, can get a hold of them. I don’t believe for a second they’re blind to the fact that anyone can get their hands on them.

I don’t go trolling for coupons in other zip codes, but every once in a while I check and if it’s a coupon I know I’ll use, I have no qualms about printing my two copies.

I’m all for ethical couponing, but we need to focus on more important issues. Such as people using coupons for products they weren’t intended for, counterfeiters and shelf-clearers.

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12 Beth March 13, 2012 at 3:25 PM

Trish, I agree that in the grand scheme, this is low down on my list of worries. I’ve actually addressed the other issues in the past, but was just bringing this one up, because I’ve been getting asked what zip code a coupon was in a lot recently and wanted to let all my readers know why I didn’t share zip codes. I think we have a lot bigger issues than right now, which is why I brought up being a trustworthy couponer today, and actually listed the things you mentioned here in the post.

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