Promo codes: What more online shoppers expect

In a rough economy, millions make a habit of using them during checkout.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Flowers: $29.99. Chocolates: $25.00. Two tickets to the latest romantic comedy: $19.50 – not including the popcorn.

Amid a recession, the costs of dating could make even the most ardent of suitors wilt.

But retail experts say there's a silver lining for consumers who fear being launched into the red.

Recommended: Five ways to save money when buying online

Online shoppers who enter specific promotional codes at checkout can save $4 on movie tickets, 10 percent on flowers, and can even finagle a discount on an engagement ring, according to Promotionalcodes.com, one of many websites dedicated to sharing retailers' discount offers.

Retailers used to provide these codes only to select costumers. But an economy in free fall has inspired more consumers to scour the Internet for deals. Minus a few exceptions, stores are desperate to unload merchandise and haven't fussed much about the widespread dispersion of their codes, which can offer consumers serious discounts.

But what retailers may view as a short-term compromise during an economic slump could incite a shift in the landscape of online sales, some retail experts surmise. Customers have gotten used to the deals – and may refuse to return to paying full price once the economy rights itself.

"Consumers are trained to have free shipping and [to] use a discount code. Retailers will attempt to wean them off. But consumers are trained that that's how the process works," says Donna Hoffman, codirector of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California at Riverside. "Depending on how deep the recession is and how long things go ... the more difficult it is going to be" for retailers to make the switch back.

Some 75 percent of online retailers offer promotional codes or coupons, says Lenka Keston, product marketing manager for Promotionalcodes.com. Her organization works with more than 5,000 retailers across the country, and she's seen increases in the numbers of retailers sending her their codes.

"It's really hard for a retailer to be competitive without them now," Ms. Keston says of the codes. "Now if you want to compete online and you don't offer the codes or coupons, the consumer will go to your competition."

In December, 31.6 million people visited a coupon or promotional code website, a 46 percent increase over December 2007, says Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at ComScore.

"The prevailing reason is clearly the economy. You might find that the economy forced people to become more Internet savvy and that they have sustained this over time," he says.

But what may have begun as a belt-tightening task has turned into a consumer habit, says Mr. Lipsman, who typically uses Google Suggest to find codes for his online purchases.

Shoppers have become more resourceful in their hunt for codes. Five years ago, Professor Hoffman says, research indicated that some consumers who didn't have a promotional code felt slighted and would abandon their online cart at checkout.

"Now its like a sport. It's not a question of being upset [if you don't have a code]. Online shoppers are savvy," she says, adding that any time during checkout, consumers can open a new browser window on their computer screen and hunt for the needed code via any number of code-sharing websites or by typing the item into a search query and seeing what pops up.

Retailers, too, could continue to benefit from promotional code use, Lipsman says. ComScore research found that last holiday season, during weeks when online stores offered more free-shipping deals, the share of transactions that offered no charge on shipping went up. But so did the cost of the items consumers purchased – consumers spent more in the end.

This could transfer to online coupons and promotional codes, he says.

"Consumers are tightening their belts. Things are grim overall," Hoffman says. "But in online shopping, things are not quite as grim. Amazon just reported their best-ever year."

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