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Digital coupons exclude buyers who aren't tech savvy, experts say

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Digital coupons have changed the way people shop for the best deals. It typically requires the internet or a smartphone in order to clip coupons and get the sale price. Grocery chains say those digital ads give customers more opportunities to save, but some consumers say the best deals are now only available to those who are tech savvy. Sara Wittmeyer of member station WFIU reports.

SARA WITTMEYER, BYLINE: Anne Robbins loves a good bargain.

ANNE ROBBINS: Before digital coupons, I always read the ads. And I would take a crayon and circle all of the ads where it's way under. Like, it's the best price I've ever seen it.

WITTMEYER: From there, Robbins would make her list and head out to do her shopping.

ROBBINS: I have a tiny envelope, and I already know what I want, and I only buy it if it's really good.

WITTMEYER: She shops at a nearby Kroger grocery store. On this day, a half-gallon of chocolate milk is $2.69. But with a digital coupon, it's $1.29 - less than half the price.

ROBBINS: It's impossible if you don't have a phone. And this phone is not - I don't know how to use it as well as my other phone. And I've gone to the Geek Squad practically every day.

JASON TOMCSI: I think for some people, it's going to be easier than others.

WITTMEYER: That's Jason Tomcsi, the regional director of AARP.

TOMCSI: It kind of just reiterates the importance of - in this day and age, of having that kind of access with regards to high-speed internet. That just opens up a lot of doorways.

WITTMEYER: Data from a 2021 Pew survey shows about 40% of people 65 and older don't have a smartphone, and about a quarter of seniors don't use the internet. And that same Pew data shows low-income shoppers are left out, too. About a quarter of households that make less than $30,000 a year don't have smartphones. Kroger is the country's largest grocery chain. The corporate headquarters declined an interview but said in a statement that shoppers don't need a smartphone to access the best deals, they just need to set up a Kroger account online and start clipping. Kroger gave Robbins instructions designed to help people get started using her phone to snap a shot of a QR code that takes shoppers to the Kroger website.

ROBBINS: But not everybody even knows that you take a photo of that.

WITTMEYER: Edgar Dworsky is the founder of Consumer World, a trade publication that offers consumer advice. He and leaders of a half dozen other consumer groups recently wrote to the CEOs of the 12 largest grocery chains asking them to make digital offers available to unplugged shoppers.

EDGAR DWORSKY: There are millions of them across the country that don't have internet access, that don't have smartphones. And particularly in times of inflation, can you make some accommodation? Can you come up with an offline alternative for these folks?

WITTMEYER: Dworsky says none of the stores have responded. Meanwhile, New Jersey State Representative Verlina Reynolds-Jackson has come up with her own idea. She co-sponsored legislation earlier this year that would have made New Jersey the first state in the nation to require retailers to have printed coupons of digital coupons in stores.

VERLINA REYNOLDS-JACKSON: I'm come from a tradition that the customer is always right. If it's supposed to be marked on sale, it's on sale for everyone, not selected people.

WITTMEYER: The legislation didn't pass, but Reynolds-Jackson says she'll bring it back up again next year. Consumer advocates say that can't come soon enough for shoppers who are losing out because they can't access digital coupons.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Wittmeyer in Bloomington, Ind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sara Wittmeyer | WFIU