New Laws Would Require That All Digital Coupons Be Automatically Applied

Aiexpress – The debate over digital coupon discrimination has become increasingly contentious, with several proposed solutions emerging. These include the introduction of in-store digital coupon kiosks, the provision of assistance from customer service representatives, and efforts to expand internet access for those who are digitally-disconnected.

Some people are suggesting a seemingly easier solution: distribute coupon discounts to everyone, regardless of whether they actively seek them or not.

New Jersey took the lead in exploring the idea of requiring broader availability of digital coupons last year. They discussed a bill, which unfortunately did not get passed. However, this initiative has sparked interest in other states as well. Following New Jersey’s footsteps, lawmakers in New York, Illinois, and most recently, Rhode Island, have proposed identical legislation to enhance access to digital coupons.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts and Washington state are taking a more extensive approach compared to New Jersey’s measure. Instead of just mandating stores to provide an in-store alternative of equal value for digital coupons, they are proposing that all digital coupons be automatically applied to shoppers’ purchases.

During public hearings this week, Democratic state representative Jeffrey Rosario Turco advocated for his bill in Massachusetts. The bill aims to mandate grocery stores that offer digital coupons to automatically apply them to purchases made by senior citizens. Additionally, the bill proposes that any other loyalty program members should have the option to apply digital coupons upon request.

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The bill states that any store that provides digital coupons must apply those coupons to the purchases of any buyer aged 65 or older when they present a government-issued photo identification. Additionally, if a consumer has a store card, they can inquire with a store cashier or customer service representative about the availability of digital coupons. If the store does offer digital coupons, all applicable coupons will be applied to the consumer’s purchase.

In his address to the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, Turco emphasized the importance of ensuring that senior citizens are not left behind. He highlighted the challenges faced by seniors who still use flip phones instead of smartphones, as they are unable to register for various programs and may miss out on valuable coupons. Turco proposed a solution whereby seniors can simply provide proof of their age, and the digital queue would automatically present them with relevant coupons.

He did not mention the remaining portion of his bill, which also involves automatically providing digital coupons to any loyalty card holder who inquires about the store’s digital coupons.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Washington state discussed a bill that goes even further. Democratic state Senator Steve Conway introduced a proposal titled “Protecting a consumer’s right to coupon and sale prices offered by grocery stores.” According to the proposal, when making a purchase, grocery stores must honor any coupons or reduced sales prices that are advertised in-store or made available through electronic means, regardless of whether the consumer has signed up for the electronic medium.

So, the best part is, you don’t need to be a loyalty program member or go through the hassle of browsing or clipping digital coupons. All you have to do is show up at the store, purchase your groceries, and if there are any digital coupons available for your purchases, you’ll automatically receive the discounts. It’s that simple!

Conway expressed concerns about the accessibility of online discounts for seniors, poor individuals, and others who are unable to access the internet. He emphasized the importance of fairness and raised the issue of discrimination if stores continue to require online access for these discounts.

He also did not specifically mention the wording of his bill, which, as it is currently written, would affect not only seniors but also everyone else.

However, retail industry representatives who testified before the committee did express some opposition. Brandon Houskeeper, a representative from the Northwest Grocery Association, argued that digital coupons are just one of the many programs that stores offer to assist customers in saving money. He emphasized that mandating how these marketing opportunities are implemented across all platforms is not something they can support.

According to Katie Beeson, a representative from the Washington Food Industry Association, coupons are often provided by the manufacturer. Therefore, in order for a retailer to receive proper reimbursement, a digital coupon must be clipped and linked to a customer’s account. This is different from simply honoring the coupon at the register based on the customer’s request. Beeson raises a valid point about whether this aspect was fully considered when introducing this system.

According to Houskeeper, if there are any isolated issues where a customer does not have access to a particular medium but is aware of a discount, they should bring it to the store’s attention. In such cases, the store will work with the individual consumer to address and resolve the problem, and honor the discounts.

“I’m not convinced that’s true,” Conway countered. “In the stores I’ve visited, I haven’t seen any signs or notices at the checkout counter informing people that they can approach us for assistance. It’s simply not there.”

The debate over digital discrimination has evolved over the past year and a half, with the introduction of two new bills that address this issue. Previously, the focus was on honoring advertised sale prices that were only accessible online or through digital means. Additionally, stores began automatically applying digital manufacturer’s coupons to all purchases. Edgar Dworsky, the founder of Consumer World, brought attention to the digital divide in June 2022. He highlighted how stores’ printed weekly circulars prominently featured low prices that were only available if customers activated the deals online. Dworsky argued that this was a tactic employed by large supermarket chains to entice customers to visit their stores, knowing that some would end up paying more than the advertised price. He called for stores to provide an option for individuals who lacked digital access to activate these deals in-store.

When state lawmakers got involved, they started to associate “digital deals” with “digital coupons,” and their proposed solutions shifted from ensuring equal access to ensuring equal outcomes. Last month, when critics of New Jersey’s bill argued that coupons are not meant to establish a universal price for a product and that providing them to everyone would likely decrease their overall value, the bill’s sponsor dismissed their concerns, stating, “That’s what happens when you make it democratic and give it to everyone.”

Both the Massachusetts and Washington bills are currently being debated and discussed before potentially being brought up for a full vote later in their respective legislative sessions. It is important to note that these bills are subject to possible revisions. Just like New Jersey’s original bill, which was initially focused on mandating “a paper coupon of identical value,” the Massachusetts and Washington bills may also undergo narrowing down. This could mean that the bills may not apply to all shoppers who have digital access but simply choose not to clip digital coupons.

The bills may pass without any revisions and become laws as they are. Many shoppers may find digital coupons that don’t require clipping and automatic discounts appealing. It’s like having every cashier equipped with neatly-clipped newspaper insert coupons and scanning the ones that are applicable to your purchases. It’s a shopper’s dream come true.

Coupon issuers argue that coupons are not meant to work that way. Their purpose is to incentivize customers to purchase a product, rather than rewarding them for buying something they would have bought regardless of a discount. If brands cannot rely on coupons to drive purchases, they may decide to stop offering them altogether and instead require customers to pay the full price.

Steve Conway, while addressing his colleagues, acknowledged that his bill is not unique and that several other states have been exploring this issue as well. He emphasized the importance of collaboration and expressed optimism about the possibility of achieving positive outcomes.

As more states consider similar legislation, the outcome becomes increasingly uncertain. With more lawmakers getting involved without fully understanding how coupons work, it’s important to be cautious if you’ve ever wished for effortless couponing.

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