GUEST BLOGGER: James Landers on the history of customer coupons

One of the original consumer “coupons,” innovated by Coca-Cola’s Asa Chandler in 1887.

Couponing has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially since the economic downturn of 2008 as consumers have to scrape by on less.  But coupons and the practices they support have been around for a lot longer in this country:

  • The first real coupons appeared in 1887 when the Coca-Cola Company was incorporated with drugstore owner (and soon-to-be business tycoon) Asa Candler as a partner. Chandler had the revolutionary idea of supplying soda fountains with free syrup and giving out slips of paper that entitled holders to a free drink. The campaign was incredibly successful.  By 1913, an estimated one in nine Americans had received a free Coke, for a total of about 8.5 million drinks. In this way the birth of the coupon coincided with, and heralded in, the ascension of an iconic American corporation.

 Candler invented the word “coupon,” from the French “couper”, which means “to cut.”

  • In the early 1900s, C.W. Post used widespread coupon distribution to market his new Grape Nuts breakfast cereal.  Each coupon offered a one-cent discount on a single box.  Post’s campaign too was extremely successful and helped both to skyrocket his own company while establishing the concept coupons in the American consciousness.
Post also utilized other innovative advertising techniques such as free samples, product demonstrations, and recipe booklets.  Other cereal companies followed Post’s example and promoted themselves by printing coupons on their packages; many continue to do so today.

  • Coupons grew more popular during the first half of the 20th century. They got a serious boost during the Depression of the 1930s, when people found it absolutely necessary to conserve money even on groceries. Clipping coupons became part of the household routine.

Chain supermarkets employed large-scale coupon giveaways during their expansion in the 1940s. These campaigns helped to cement their central position in the food industry and dominate the market over older, local shops.  In 1957, the Nielsen Coupon Clearing House, an institution dealing solely in coupon redemption, was founded.  Its creation symbolized the growing importance of the coupon industry in America.

  • The industry continued to grow in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, both in coupon users and methods of distribution. By 1965, half the households in America were using coupons.  Coupons began to appear in newspapers, on sales receipts at grocery stores, and on shelves in electronic form.

The advent of the Internet in the early 1990s brought the first appearance of online-distributed, printable coupons.  By 2003, 77% of consumers used coupons in some form. Over the next few years, new technologies like smartphone apps allowed for even more opportunities and mediums for coupon distribution.

  • The U.S. government distributed coupons for the first time in 2009 — over 64 million of them, each offering $40 off the purchase of a digital-to-analog television converter box.

The history of the coupon in America is the story of a single bright idea that spawned a booming and vital industry, one that continues to grow and diversify today, spurred on by the climate of economic instability just as it was in the 1930s.

James Landers is with the site Couponing that offers top-retailer coupon information, couponing tips and how-to guides.