Here's some solace if you feel like an inadequate couponer because you can't achieve the 90 percent off you see on TV shows like TLC's "Extreme Couponing."
The deals could be staged.
Coupon policing agencies are questioning the TLC show, and evidence is piling up of store managers overriding cashiers to "play along" with the reality TV show — creating an exaggerated impression of what's possible with couponing.
In some cases, grocery stores are apologizing to their regular customers for playing along with TV show, and customers are having to return to the grocery store to pay money back for products they bought with coupons that turned out to be illegitimate.
That doesn't surprise some coupon bloggers who questioned the show from the beginning.
"I'm definitely glad to see people couponing and wanting to save money, but we have to remember this is a reality TV show, and you don't know what happens behind the scenes," said Ashley Nuzzo, Tallahassee-based founder of the coupon blog FrugalCouponLiving.com.
"Even myself, I don't save as much in the store as they show, and I work with coupons for a living."
The TLC show is in its second season, each week following several dedicated shoppers who spend upward of 70 or more hours a week assembling coupons, some collected by jumping into Dumpsters to find stray newspaper circulars.
Camera crews follow the shoppers through grocery store aisles as they pile up dozens of bottles of mustard or several carts of toilet paper. At the cash register, their total appears to show 90 percent or more off the retail price.
Some shoppers have gathered stockpiles of groceries large enough to fill their pantries, garages and bedrooms.
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Coupon bloggers who were among the first to cry foul are gaining momentum.
Most recently, the show portrayed a 16-year-old "Joel" from Burbank, Calif., picking up $400 worth of toilet paper at the upscale grocery Gelson's, then paying only a few pennies on the dollar after handing over stacks of coupons.
That caught the attention of coupon advocate and blogger Jill Cataldo, who has criticized the show repeatedly for what she calls "rampant coupon misuse." This includes using coupons for a different product from the same manufacturer.
Cataldo and others examined the show frame-by-frame to identify products and individual coupon bar codes and some stores have admitted to playing along with the show by intentionally overriding cash registers that rejected the coupons.
Cataldo's agitation over the $400 toilet paper incident triggered attention from the Coupon Information Corporation, an association formed by product manufacturers to investigate and fight coupon fraud at stores.
"CIC reviewed the situation and confirmed that a minor (Joel) had indeed used counterfeit coupons on the show," the CIC said in a statement about the toilet paper episode. But that wasn't the end of the story.
When the grocery store sent the coupons to the toilet paper manufacturer for redemption, they were rejected as fake.
"Unfortunately, none of this was ever aired on the show or otherwise disclosed to viewers of 'Extreme Couponing,' " the CIC said, echoing a complaint it has issued several times that the show creates a false impression of the savings possible with couponing.
Officials with Gelson's declined to comment. TLC officials did not return messages seeking comment on the show.
Cataldo, who writes a syndicated column on couponing from her home in Chicago, said it has become common for her readers to send in evidence of problems with the show.
"While the show does not have an overtly instructional component, it's on The Learning Channel," Cataldo said. "When something is shown on TV, it tends to validate things for people who then think 'Well, that must be what you can do.' "
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One store that participated in the TLC show came to regret it.
North Carolina-based Lowes Foods stores agreed to let TLC tape an episode, the company said, "in hope to show viewers that we are a coupon-friendly grocer with outstanding products and customer service."
Instead, some of the episode was "staged by the production company," with some Lowes employees agreeing to play the part of customers for dramatic effect.
"We definitely made a poor decision by participating in the show," the company said in a formal apology to customers. "What is most disturbing to us is we disappointed you, our valued customer. We sincerely hope you can look beyond our mistake."
All this comes as grocery stores like Publix are tightening or clarifying their coupon policies to handle real-life extreme couponers. Publix recently upgraded software in cash registers to determine whether a shopper actually was buying a product identified on a coupon and not just one produced by the same manufacturer.
While stores such as Kroger, Target and others have allowed TLC to film episodes in their stores, Publix declined TLC's request to film in a Publix location.
All of the sister companies of Sweetbay, owned by Belgian-based Delhaize, were asked to participate in the show and all declined, said spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau.
In Sweetbay's case, the store avoided the show partly because it didn't mesh with the store's "everyday low prices" philosophy, she said, "so there's no need to buy in bulk, as they do in the show."
As for the $400 worth of toilet paper, the CIC found the mother of the young man repaid the store for the coupons.