COLUMBIA — During a recent trip to the grocery store, Scott Grey used online coupons to lower a $182 bill to $5. That magnitude of savings was unusual, he said, but he's become accustomed to bringing his bills way down with coupons.
Although those printed from the Internet make up about one-fifth of the coupons he uses, Grey said, they typically make up about 40 percent of his total savings.
"I don't have as many of them (eCoupons), but they account for a large chunk of what I save," Grey said. "They tend to be the higher face-value coupons."
Internet coupons now account for 11 percent of coupon use in the U.S., according to a study released in June by Scarborough Research, a consumer and market research service. This represents an 83 percent increase over the numbers in 2006.
"With prices for consumer goods rising, we can only expect that a ‘good deal' is of increasing importance to shoppers," Alisa Joseph, vice president of advertiser marketing services for Scarborough Research, said in the study. "Coupons are one of several economically focused promotional tools that stores and product brands can use to get shoppers in the door and spending, despite these uncertain economic times. And, the Internet provides an easy-to-use vehicle to search for coupons."
Although Columbia residents like Grey who use Internet coupons represent a relatively small segment of the population, some Columbia businesses are in on the ground floor with the hope that the national trend goes local.
"It seems to be increasing," said Mirra Greenway, owner of Greenway Massage Team. "There's not that much out there yet but the sooner you get in on something the more traction you can get."
Greenway Massage offers coupons on the city's Web site and on MerchantCircle, a Web service that helps promote small businesses.
For Tom Brinker, who owns the bike shop Cyclextreme, having an online presence for his store is vital in today's business world. Cyclextreme participates in an electronic coupon program with the city as well as operates its own Web site.
"It's obviously a very valuable tool in this day and age," Brinker said. "Our Web site is enormously successful. We sell products all over the world because of it."
Internet coupons have several advantages compared with traditional coupons. Many online coupon services use templates that business owners can fill out, allowing them to quickly and easily create custom deals. And because the Internet is always open, business owners and consumers always have access.
"It's so much easier when you can fill it out right then and there," Greenway said. "The availability of them being out there 24/7/365, generally for free, is a great form of advertising."
Electronic coupons aren't limited to individual business' Web sites. City governments, chambers of commerce and even Google have jumped into the online coupon game.
Justin Christmas, owner of Carpet Plus, posted his business on MerchantCircle about six months ago. He said he sees one or two people a month using coupons printed from the Internet.
"If people search for a business they come up," Christmas said. "If they find them, they do. If they don't, they don't."
Heather Foster, who owns A Step Janitorial with her husband, Matthew, started a MerchantCircle account after receiving a call that someone had searched for her business on the site. After perusing the site, she created a profile and posted ads and deals.
Foster said making coupons available online is an effective way to generate interest in her business and she prefers it to traditional coupons. "It's a good way to take that first step," she said. "When people have something in their hands they're more likely to use it."