As a Princeton University graduate student on a budget, John Schmitt became a coupon expert — the person his friends would come to for discount tips.
He was well-versed in the restrictions of coupons and knew the best places to find savings. Memorable coupons even included a Barnes & Noble discount offering $10 off a $10 purchase and a 50 percent-off coupon from Eddie Bauer.
"I just had kind of like an encyclopedic knowledge of what coupons were out there and what I could use to save money on different things," said Schmitt, who attended Princeton from 1996 to 2001. "Being a graduate student with a very limited income, living on the East Coast where things are expensive … I needed to pinch every penny I could."
Now, Schmitt is using the same expertise he honed as a student to help thousands of people save money on their online purchases — from books to shoes — through CopiousCoupons.com, a Web site that offers free coupon codes to consumers.
And he's not alone. The popularity of online shopping has led to the growth of numerous online coupon Web sites. In mere minutes, customers can search for promotional codes for stores like Target or trade coupons through sites like Coupon Chix.com.
CopiousCoupons.com, which Schmitt created more than four years ago, works in affiliation with numerous retailers to offer consumers discounts. Hundreds of codes are listed on the company's Web site, and customers can narrow down searches based on a retailer or discount amount.
That includes a 30 percent-off coupon from Footlocker.com, 10 percent off Gap.com apparel, and 15 percent off iPod and MP3 accessories from CircuitCity.com.
When a costumer enters a code when making an online purchase, CopiousCoupons.com receives a commission from the retailer, usually 4 percent to 5 percent of the purchase cost. Schmitt updates the coupon listings with about 30 new offers each day, and the site attracts 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a month.
"I think that it is still growing," said Schmitt, about the online coupon industry. "And I think as the broadband Internet increases to more homes, you're going to see a lot more people utilizing it."
But are online coupons and the sharing or trading of coupon codes legal?
Don't Spend to Save!
It depends, according to Bud Miller, executive director of the Coupon Information Corporation, a not-for-profit agency that works against coupon fraud.
Sites that work in affiliation with retailers or discounts that come from manufacturers are legal, he said. But consumers should never buy coupons online, warned Miller.
"They should never pay money for coupons — simply don't go down that road," he said. "The best way to protect themselves is to get the coupons directly from the manufacturer or their authorized vendor."
Miller said that a free product or "high value" coupons are most likely to be counterfeited.
"Prior to 2001, there were only really two significant counterfeit cases between probably 1986 and 2001," Miller said of the increased coupon counterfeits that came as a result of the Internet. "And now, we're finding new counterfeits at least on a monthly basis, and frequently once or twice a week. So it's really grown substantially over the years."
Even if the coupons are legitimate, it's best to read the fine print, added Schmitt. "A lot of sites that you'll see, they post coupons but they have a lot of different exclusions. Or they post coupons where they're already expired, which is really frustrating for people who are trying to use them."
While many people still rely on the Sunday newspaper to find savings, the overall number of people using coupons has declined, according to Jeffrey Weitzman, chief marketing officer of Coupons, Inc., which offers "coupon services" for brands like Disney and operates the coupon site Coupons.com.
"That idyllic picture that some of us may have in our heads of sitting down and reading the Sunday paper and clipping coupons at the kitchen table — that doesn't necessarily fit with people's lifestyles today," said Weitzman.
But the number of people using online, printable coupons has increased, he said.
"The total number of coupons that get used year over year has been declining slowly, very slowly," he said. "I think coupons are here to stay, but they are going to start being seen more and more in this new medium of online.
"The nice thing about printable coupons is that it has all of the convenience of being able to find these deals on the Internet, but you can use them in any retail store where those products are sold. We see that our printable coupons, that our part of the business, is likely to become 10 percent to 20 percent of the total coupon-volume distribution and redemption over the next couple of years."
Despite the fact that numerous Web sites offer legal coupons and savings free of charge, many people still do not use them, said Schmitt.
But with the upcoming holiday season, there's no better time to turn to such discounts.
During the holidays, he added, companies offer some of their best coupons: "Retailers will kind of go all out and give coupons that they'd never give during any other part of the year."