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September 2, 2019

Some Coupons Have Secret “Start” Dates

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:41 am

Hellmann's $1 couponOn Saturday, August 24, MrConsumer went to Price Rite supermarket because they had Hellmann’s mayonnaise on sale for $2.49 with a store-issued coupon.

But MrConsumer also had a $1 off manufacturer’s coupon that had just come that week in the coupon inserts. So that 30-ounce jar of mayonnaise would only cost $1.49.

When checking out, the $1 store coupon was deducted without a problem. But the manufacturer’s coupon would not deduct. A store clerk (erroneously) argued that one cannot use two coupons on the same item. As most veteran shoppers know, virtually all supermarkets will accept both a store-issued coupon and a manufacturer’s coupon for the same item.

When I pressed the issue a bit more, the coupon was rescanned and an odd error message came up on the screen… words to the effect that the start date was not met. No one knew what that meant, and store personnel went back to the line “you can only use one coupon per item.”

Dissatisfied and disappointed, I wrote to the supermarket’s customer relations department and asked (in all caps) that someone from upper management contact me about this issue. To my surprise and delight a district manager called me and was puzzled by what had happened, suggesting that it was only reasonable for them to accept the manufacturer’s coupon since the supermarket would be reimbursed for it. I photographed the coupon and emailed it to him so he could experiment with it if necessary.

A couple of days later, he emailed back the surprising results of his inquiry.


Previously unbeknownst to him and the rest of the shopping world including me is that some manufacturers code a hidden “start date” of sorts into the barcode. Presumably, this is to limit the effective period of the coupon and also to try to prevent fraudulent redemptions.

This coupon was slated to be in the RetailMeNot coupon insert in Sunday’s paper, August 25th — the day after I tried to redeem it. It appears that Unilever put a start date of August 25th on the coupon to coincide with the newspaper’s publication date. What this multi-billion dollar corporation didn’t realize is that Sunday newspapers and the inserts in them are often available the day before on Saturday. And what they further were oblivious to was the practice of coupon inserts being delivered to homes in bags along with the upcoming week’s supermarket circulars days in advance. For example, I normally receive my bag of ads on Tuesday or Wednesday for supermarket sales that begin on the coming Friday or Sunday.

The Price Rite manager shared these findings with me, and instructed store personnel in his district to always accept a valid store coupon plus a manufacturer’s coupon for the same item, and to accept manufacturer’s coupons that are redeemed prior to their hidden start date. Kudos to him.

Consumer World then wrote to Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s, to ask why they use hidden start dates. We explained to them that coupon inserts are often received by shoppers a day or days in advance, and asked what were they going to do to remedy the coupon rejection problem they unwittingly created?

We’ll post their answers as soon as they respond.

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  1. Kudos to you Edgar for doing the right thing always. Was there a line of people behind you?

    EDGAR REPLIES: It was the self-checkout!

    Comment by Rosemarie lauria — September 2, 2019 @ 9:14 am
  2. Secret start dates!?!!??! I had no trouble using that coupon although I did not use it at a Price Rite.

    Edgar replies: Richard… but did you use it EARLY — prior the Aug. 25th? That is the issue.

    Comment by richard Ginn — September 2, 2019 @ 9:32 am
  3. A cynic/skeptic might think Unilever is counting on you buying that product on the spot anyway, paying the non-cryptic coupon price, and therefore not needing another bottle, thereby saving themselves the payment for the cryptic coupon. But a big company like Unilever wouldn’t do that, would they? Hah!

    I always try to remember there is no such thing as a big company in the end. It is always a human being who came to work with decision-making powers and will exercise those powers to their or their company benefit. I believe “the customer comes first” only if it has high odds of increasing sales in the future.

    Example: SOMEone made the decision to hide that start date. Not a big company, just someONE(s).

    Edgar, thank you again for being there and being so persistent.

    Comment by BobF — September 2, 2019 @ 12:45 pm
  4. If there is a start date which must be honored by the supermarket, why is it not disclosed on the coupon itself? I’m afraid I would have a discussion at the store level as to why I couldn’t use the discount that day, and I would think any manager would agree to honor it, considering the store should still get credit for it.

    Comment by MerryMarjie — September 2, 2019 @ 1:46 pm
  5. Well Edgar I did not use it prior to the 25th as I did not get that coupon until I got the Sunday morning paper.

    Comment by richard Ginn — September 2, 2019 @ 5:41 pm
  6. In my experience at Walmart if you present two coupons for the same item the system will only accept one.

    Comment by Robert — September 3, 2019 @ 4:37 pm
  7. Unilever coupons never work for me, so I just avoid buying their products.

    Comment by Lana Gramlich — September 4, 2019 @ 10:51 am
  8. Kudos to the district manager for responding like he did.

    Comment by MarcK1024 — September 8, 2019 @ 11:32 am
  9. Isn’t it possible that there was nothing particularly nefarious going on here? I don’t know how far in advance these coupon inserts are printed up, but I can imagine that there are probably some good reasons why Unilever wouldn’t want them in circulation too early and that they had simply never considered the fact that the coupons do get distributed several days early to legitimate customers. Also, since I don’t get the Sunday papers anymore and for some reason the coupons are not delivered to my address with the weekly supermarket flyers I can’t check this, but is there an effective date applying to all coupons listed anywhere on the inserts that the coupons are printed on?

    Comment by jim — September 9, 2019 @ 7:30 pm

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