Advanced Grocery Deals: Catalinas

by Carrie Kirby on 25 January 2009 14 comments
Photo: Carrie Kirby

There is a special category of deals that grocery stores offer, known in the coupon community as Catalina deals after the marketing company that issues the coupons involved. I consider them graduate-level grocery cost-cutting -- there is math involved to get the best deals, but it's worth it.

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You might have noticed these deals in the grocery flyers: “Spend $20 on selected products, get $10 off your next purchase.” Right off the bat, these deals promise better prices than you would normally find, because the products involved are almost always on sale for the duration of the special offer. Normally, you are either offered a sale price or a “buy-one-get-one” offer, which is essentially half price. But with the above Catalina example, you are being offered half off the sale price – assuming you are able to use the coupons you earn for things you would have bought anyway on your next visit.
 
And it gets better. Any coupons you use with a Catalina deal typically sweeten the deal without subtracting from that $20 you need to spend to get the reward. So, if you buy 10 boxes of cereal on sale for $2 each, and you have a $1 coupon for each box (not unusual), you would pay $10 cash but still qualify for the “Spend $20, get $10 offer.” Which would mean, essentially, that you just traded $10 cash for $10 in coupons, and got the cereal for free.
 
Let me stress again that the coupons you receive in these deals are for ANYTHING, not just for specific products. They will say, "$5 off your next grocery order," for example.
 
Sometimes Catalina deals let you “roll” the coupons you get, meaning that, in the cereal scenario, you could take that $10 in coupons you just earned, add 10 more $1 manufacturer’s coupons, and use it to buy 10 more boxes of cereal, paying NOTHING except perhaps a few cents tax. Sometimes rolling is forbidden in the fine print of the coupon, but often it is not. The only condition I see on all such coupons is that they cannot be used to purchase alcohol and other restricted products.
 
And here’s a secret that can make some Catalina deals sweeter yet: The scuttlebutt online is that, at least for recent such promotions at Jewel/Shaw’s, the amount you are supposed to spend is actually based on the items’ regular price, not their sale price. I read about this discrepancy on the Jewel forum on Hot Coupon World and tried it myself during three different Catalina promotions; each time, it worked. As long as my items totaled $20 (or whatever the threshold was for that particular promotion) BEFORE I scanned my store card, the coupons would print out. In this way, with the use of coupons, I was actually able to MAKE MONEY on several transactions; that is, I spent $11 in cash and got back $15 in coupons. Plus all that food, of course.
 
The photo shows all the groceries I got during one such promotion. I paid about $10 for the first transaction, then rolled the coupons I received for each subsequent transaction, adding another $5 along the way. That’s right, I paid $15 for all that. Without sales or coupons, this food would have cost $300. More details on this specific deal can be found on my blog.
 
Is this Catalina secret a glitch, or is this the way the companies involved have designed the promotion? No one seems to know. Every store employee I have ever asked were unaware that this “hack” existed. They all said they were sure you had to spend the $20 out of pocket, or you would not get coupons. A customer service representative was also unaware of the situation.
 
Is it unethical to run the deal this way? At first it might seem so, but remember that all you are doing is buying the food. You’re not MAKING the store give you coupons; you’re not even asking for them. There’s nothing unethical or fraudulent about buying $11 or $15 worth of groceries. If the clerk hands you a few coupons when you check out, well, that’s nice of them. Unless you feel that a shopper in that situation should return the coupons to the service desk and insist they were not earned – which in my opinion would be crazy – I see nothing wrong with taking advantage of this possible loophole. Of course, if you don't feel comfortable trying the deal the "cheap" way, don't do it. There are still good bargains to be had doing Catalina deals the regular way, especially if you have coupons.
 
If you do want to try Catalina deals the cheap way, a few warnings: Just because past deals have worked this way at certain stores is no guarantee that they will also work this way in the future. Check online forums (like the Jewel forum on Hot Coupon World) to find out how it’s going for other people before venturing out yourself. Also, be aware that sometimes Catalina deals don’t work. The coupon printer is out of paper, or the register freezes and has to be rebooted, or you accidentally bought an item that’s not included or came a few cents short of the total you were supposed to spend – so your expected coupons just don’t print out.
 
If something goes wrong, and you only spent $11 out of pocket for a “spend $20” deal, don’t expect the staff to help you get those Catalinas. Because the employees at Jewel, in my experience, don’t believe that the deal works this way, most of them won’t help. Then you either have to just accept that you didn’t get your expected payoff, or you have to return your items, which could be difficult if you paid with coupons instead of with cash. Personally, I have just decided that I’m getting such great deals when participating in these Catalinas that I’m not going to bother arguing with the staff if it goes wrong a couple times.
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Myscha Theriault's picture

That's pretty impressive shopping, Carrie. Good job.

Guest's picture
Guest

it is actually pretty easy to do this. I only do the ones that are for products I use all the time, and routinely get my $20 or $30 of groceries for less than $10, sometimes, $5. I make my list of what I want before I leave the house and clip my coupons to the list. I work full time and have 2 kids and it takes only minutes to save. I also use this to buy food for our local food bank- I can donate a lot more on what I can afford to spend.

Guest's picture
lucille

This does look like a smart way to cram down your costs. The problem is that the selected products or the ones involved are almost always processed foods. Those all have a high price margin vs. ingredients or nutrition involved because they are processed foods.

Possibly a better way to cut your grocery costs would be to consume less processed convenience foods.

Carrie Kirby's picture

True, for a family that consumes no processed foods, Catalina deals don't have much to offer. But for a family that uses some processed foods for convenience but wants to make more room in the budget for more and better fresh foods, it's perfect. You would never get as much food, pound per pound, buying fresh produce and meat for the money as you get in these Catalina deals, but of course no one should be eating JUST processed foods so we don't live off these deals alone. We use them to enable ourselves to spend more on the healthy stuff.

Here's how it works at my house: We would have bought certain packaged items anyway. A few cans of soup a month, a couple boxes of cereal a week (we really like cereal), and if they're affordable some granola bars. (The canned soup is especially handy because my husband keeps it in his cubicle at work and if he forgets his lunch, the soup stops him from going out to a restaurant.) But instead of buying these items each week, I can now wait until one of these deals comes along, buy up a bunch of what I would normally get anyway, and spend much, much less than I otherwise would have.

That frees up money in my weekly shopping budget for higher-quality fresh items. For instance, next week, since I don't need any cereal, soup, meat (I stocked my freezer on that when hormone and antibiotic-free meat was on sale at Target), or pasta, I will be able to use my whole $80 budget on organic fruits and vegetables and a few staples from Trader Joe's. Since I started shopping Catalinas (I've done three of them in the past four or five months), I've been able to switch to mostly organic produce and mostly hormone/antibiotic-free milk and meat.

My absolute favorite two items I've gotten with Catalina deals: boxed chicken broth and canned tomatoes. Since I do most of my cooking from scratch, I use a lot of these items. Yes, it would be healthier to make my own stock from a chicken carcass, and I do when I have one. But the fact is I probably make 10 meals with chicken broth for every one actual carcass I have around to make it. Hence, for me, getting boxed broth for practically nothing was fantastic.

I blog at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture
Jen

These are an essential for hard-core couponers at chain drugstores. CVS and Walgreens, in particular, do a lot of offers with catalinas (CVS calls them ExtraCare bucks, Walgreens calls theirs Register Rewards). Often you can get products like shampoo, toothpaste, razors, paper goods, etc. for pennies or free, and then roll the catalinas into next week's deals. Even if you don't eat any processed food, I would bet you wash your hair with a commercial product. =)

Guest's picture

Carrie---You are my idol! I wish you were my best friend and would go with me to the store!!!!

Guest's picture
Marcia

I generally think about this every time I go to the store. But like some others have mentioned, I don't eat very much processed food. Of the list of 20 things that you can buy to get the deal, I maybe only eat two. And I don't feel like buying 20 of them. For example, in your picture, I saw gogurt. Now, I bought this recently (put in the freezer and my son gets "ice cream"). But then I saw the HFCS and food coloring.

Of course, sometimes I do the math, and find that even with the sale, cash back, and coupons, it's still more expensive than Costco.

I do make myself sit down every couple of weeks and recalculate. I've been doing that a bit with the drugstore/CVS thing also. (Thing is, I really don't buy enough shampoo/toothpaste/makeup/toilet paper to make those useful either!!)

I would buy Cheerios, broth, canned tomatoes, and the occasional cake mix though.

Guest's picture
Cindy

Thanks for sharing this - I have never heard of it before!

Guest's picture
karrie

I did this a few years ago with my husband and sister after a friend tipped us off. We went to a few different stores, "bought" tons of food--lots of soup that we donated--and had a blast. IME, though, in one store the employees were downright hostile. We each had a cart and they asked us not to return, which didn't matter since it was not a store any of us normally shopped at.

At others, it was easy--self-checkouts (again, store above forbid us once they saw what were doing and made an employee ring us in), and FTMP employees who thought it was awesome. (I'm sure a few at least, did it themselves later with smaller amounts.)

The food wasn't really stuff we ate, but the people we shared it with were extremely appreciative, and considering how much grocery shopping normally costs, it was inexpensive entertainment.

Guest's picture

I do the same thing at the local stores. You should blog that on our site also. Paontheweb.com

I am all about saving some cash in the stores. I always go to the place that uses double coupons when they are running the buy one get one free deals. You can also go to the makers website and get coupons.

Everyone has offers now.

Guest's picture
Guest

Just wanna let ppl know why store employees get mad lol... I'm an employee at jewel osco and we don't get mad if u do many orders at a time awith cats....we only ask for ppl not to use the SELF CHECKOUT EXPRESS lanes to do this because that is not an express order so next time there is a cat like this please use a normal checkout lane or ask one of the COSTUNER SERVICE employees to open up a lane just for u....this helps other costumers have a better time shopping ;) thank you all

Guest's picture
Guest

"Is it unethical to run the deal this way?"

Not at all! You are not robbing the store of anything since they get the value of all coupons (including Catalinas) back from the issuing manufacturer!

Never feel bad for using coupons to get a good deal. I once had a shopper in line behind me ask me how much I saved, and after I told her (it was over 60%), she asked where I get all my coupons. When I told her most of them were printed from the internet, she told me she was "gonna have to buy a priner". That put a smile on my face!

Guest's picture
Guest

It's funny that you could even consider for a second that you were being unethical by using the coupons to "make money." The coupon company, the store, and the manufacturer wants you to believe you are getting a great deal, which you are, but really the store is getting your loyalty (and possibly your kids' loyalty in the future), the manufacturer's are getting you to try some of their products you might not have otherwise (my main reason for skipping almost all grocery coupons) and hope that you will come back for more, or that your kids will get hooked on something in particular. You have to remember, they know what they are doing, they spend tons of money to research customer behavior (and we help them by using our loyalty cards to tell them exactly what we buy and when) and to market to us. This is why they make so much more money than smaller, local stores who can't afford that kind of research. Go ahead and take advantage of their deals - since you are so hardcore about couponing, it's possible you are spending less in the end, but realize that most people don't put this much effort into it and when you tell them about a coupon you are doing the work of a store and getting people to buy things they weren't planning on buying or going to a store they don't usually go to. Don't get me wrong, I like reading this blog once in a while (got some free christmas cards recently because of it!) and I appreciate what you are trying to do, but I'm just cynical I guess :)

Guest's picture
Guest

We always hand the Kroger plus card to the checker first thing.

Anyway, I know we got Duracell catalinas based on the regular price but they were on sale and didn't total up to the amount needed to get the catalina. It may not be that way at all Kroger stores, but it is at the one we shop at.

Not to be rude, I wouldn't fudge the order 'cause remember that old saying "when first we practice to deceive, oh what twisted webs we weave"

Happy Shopping!!