Advanced Grocery Deals: Catalinas
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.
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.