The Coupon Lady: About bar codes

Coupons' bar codes provide retailers with information on the product and discount available, but not the expiration date.

This week, I’ll answer another question posted on my Facebook page.


Anna-Lorie K wrote: “After using a cutting machine to chop a couple of coupons, I tried using one and the date was sliced off. The cashier said it was invalid because the date was missing. Isn’t technology good enough to figure out if it is valid, even with the date distorted as long as the bar code is intact?”

Most stores specifically say in their coupon policies that a coupon has to have a valid expiration date located on the coupon to be accepted. One reason is that counterfeited coupons are usually created by altering a genuine coupon, such as changing or removing the expiration date. Coupons have expiration dates because coupons are a part of manufacturers’ advertising budget, and they need the coupons to be redeemed so that the actual money redeemed can be accounted for in quarterly bookkeeping.

Counterfeit coupons can cause the marketing department to go over budget, creating profit losses for the company that result in less money for future advertising and fewer coupons for consumers.

When a grocery store scans a product, it scans the product’s barcode. Coupons are scanned in the same manner.

A coupon barcode contains 12 numbers, such as 1-22222-33344-5. The first number is the Universal Product Code Prefix, either 5 or 9. Coupons that start with nines will not double.

The next five numbers are called the Company Prefix. These five digits should match the first five digits of the item you are purchasing.

The next set of three numbers is called the Family Code. Manufacturers separate their products into groups. These numbers determine whether a product is meant for one specific item or can be used on multiple varieties or different products.

The fourth set of two numbers is called the Value Code, which tells the register how much to take off the product. The number correlates to preset system values. The last number is called a check digit and serves as a security measure.

Now that we know what the barcode represents, we also know that nothing in the UPC tells the computer when the coupon expires. However, UPCs are being replaced by a new form of coding called QR codes, which can contain much more information. As these systems are introduced, it is very likely that future coupons will contain expiration information within the code.

I need to talk about something else Anna-Lorie mentioned. Gang cutting, the cutting of several coupons at the same time, has a controversial past. According to an article on “gang-cut” coupons by Jill Cataldo, a nationally syndicated coupon columnist, “Many years ago, manufacturers were having problems with stores gang-cutting coupons from unsold newspapers, then turning them in for reimbursement. It had gotten so bad that one organization estimated that over 108 million coupons were redeemed fraudulently annually – and that was back in 1977!”

Cataldo said that when coupons are suspected of being gang cut, the manufacturer will actually refuse to reimburse the stores for these coupons, even if they are redeemed properly.

How many coupons have to be cut exactly in the same way before the manufacturer gets suspicious? Manufacturers will suspect any coupon redemption that contains 12 or more coupons cut in exactly the same manner. With that said, I do cut my coupons at the same time using scissors. However, I only cut four at a time, so I fall well below guidelines. If you get 10 inserts each week, consider cutting them in two different sets to keep in compliance.

Even though we are not doing anything wrong, we want to make sure that the stores we visit get reimbursed properly. If the company has large losses from fraudulent or suspicious behavior, it is more likely to change or eliminate coupon policies in the future, which affects us all.

Learn more about coupons

Carol Gunter will hold a free class, Extreme Couponing for Beginners, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. July 26 at Columbia County Christian Church, 4004 Prescott Drive in Martinez. Seating is limited. To reserve your spot, log on to Contact Gunter at The Augusta Chronicle at (706) 823-3318 or