When Sandy Beacham of Augusta goes grocery shopping, she always has a coupon in hand.
Inspired by TLC's show Extreme Couponing , the stay-at-home mother of five is on a mission to save as much money as possible. She's saved the most on toiletries and personal items at drug stores, but she doesn't consider herself an extreme couponer like people on the show.
"I try not to get caught up in buying stuff just because I have a coupon for it. On TV, you see them buying in bulk a lot of the same thing, where I'm not just going to eat a bunch of noodles and spaghetti sauce," Beacham said. "I don't see the sense of having a million of one item if I'm not going to use it. I just take it on as a fun hobby to see if I can save money."
As the economic downturn and television shows such as Extreme Couponing have made clipping coupons popular, some shoppers are taking it to the extreme, clearing grocery store and retail shelves, filling shopping carts to the brim, and holding up shopping lines as cashiers try to process their stacks of coupons.
Now, some grocery and retail stores nationwide are changing their coupon policies. Rite Aid, Bi-Lo and Publix have made changes, while guidelines at Kroger, Target and Walgreens remain the same, according to corporate media officials.
Rite Aid has changed its buy-one, get-one-free and multiple coupon policies.
"We've designed our policy so that all our customers can take advantage of the great values we offer, rather than a small group excessively taking advantage of them," said Eric Harkreader, a Rite Aid spokesman.
Kellie Ham, of Augusta, has learned it's best to go grocery shopping early to find the items she wants.
"I do remember times where something has been on sale in the ad, and I know if you don't usually go, like, on a Wednesday when the ad comes out, if you wait until Thursday or Friday, sometimes it will be gone off the shelf," Ham said during a recent trip to Kroger on Washington Road.
She uses some coupons, but she doesn't go overboard, she said.
"I've never gone to that extreme where you get a hundred bottles of dish detergent or 400 rolls of toilet paper, but I do use some coupons," Ham said.
Angela McLaurin, of Trenton, S.C., doesn't use coupons in excess, but she's been able to get items for free at CVS, such as toothpaste, razors and body wash.
"I think that it's fun, but it's saved us a ton of money. Now I can go spend $70 and have a week's worth of food. I've gotten great deals on diapers," McLaurin said. "But there's no way that I would buy the amount of the stuff (extreme couponers) buy. They got great deals, but really what did they have to feed their family for dinner? They didn't end up with any real food."
Karen Green, a coupon expert and columnist for North Augusta Today , said she doesn't teach extreme couponing in her coupon classes. Local store managers have told her their corporate offices changed the stores' policies because of extreme couponing.
"So many people now are trying to do what they see on TV, and it's causing big problems. So for (retailers), it's just easier to limit things now," Green said.
A manager at Walgreens in North Augusta told Green it only takes about two extreme couponers "to wipe them completely out" because stores don't receive enough notice to stock up on sale items. Walgreens hasn't changed its coupon policy companywide, but individual stores have implemented policies to guard against extreme couponers, she said. Green tells students to practice "ethical couponing."
"When you start doing extreme couponing, you really do become a hoarder. You just want to buy as much as you can, and it doesn't matter if anybody else can do it. So you wipe out the shelves, you don't leave anything for anybody else. It's too much excess. Instead of getting what your family needs for the next six to 12 weeks, they're getting what they need for the next 50 years," she said.
Carol Gunter, a coupon expert and a columnist for The Augusta Chronicle , said it's unrealistic for shoppers to replicate the savings on Extreme Couponing . She said retailers changed their policies for the show and participated to promote their stores.
"I think this show is making people think they can go out there and literally never pay for anything ever again, and that's just not realistic. There are very few coupons on meat and produce. Also, coupons vary by region and policies vary by region," Gunter said.
Consumers are searching for coupons in record numbers and buying more than one Sunday newspaper, a new concept to most people, she said.
Because coupons are being redeemed in unprecedented quantities, stores have changed their coupon policies to combat coupon fraud, Gunter said. At local flea markets, people are reselling items they received free with coupons, which is against the rules. A local grocery store manager told her this is a problem.
"The coupon is meant to be a discount for an individual person, not a retail situation. I honestly think that's what the stores are worried about when they're setting their limits and changing their policies. It's not meant for the person that takes four to 10 coupons in for the same item ... because that's what you intend to use for your own household," Gunter said.
Coupon theft is on the rise, another major concern for retailers. People are stealing coupon inserts from newspaper machines and decoding coupons or matching part of the UPC code to buy items the coupon was not intended for, she said.
Green said she doesn't think couponing will ever return to the way things should be.
"People always find a way around the system," she said. "But I'm optimistic that changes in policies will help more people be able to get the savings than have been able to, especially over the past few months with this show that's come out."