Are digital-only coupons discriminatory against the elderly and poor?

Photo: @cookienanster via Twenty20
Jul 25, 2022

Many grocers find numerous advantages in emphasizing digital coupons. The digital shift, however, may be limiting access to coupons to technologically-challenged older and lower-income Americans.

Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and founder of Consumer World, checked more than 50 supermarkets and found about two-thirds offering some weekly digital-only deals. Ten of the chains doubled or tripled the number of digital-only deals offered in June 2022 compared to the same week a year earlier.

“Digital discounts are no deal for many seniors. They are a clever ploy by big supermarket chains to get people into the store knowing full well that many of them will wind up paying more than the advertised price,” Mr. Dworsky commented in the report. “A substantial number of shoppers don’t have online access, don’t understand how to take advantage of digital offers, or won’t be able to follow the cumbersome online procedure no matter what their age is.”​

As reported by CNN, Pew Research Center research from 2021 found that 39 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not own a smartphone and 25 percent don’t use the internet. In the same year, Pew found 24 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 annually don’t own a smartphone and 41 percent don’t have a computer.

Grocers are incentivized to encourage shoppers to use digital coupons to reduce costs, see promotion response rates, track purchases and personalize offers.

Coupon distribution has declined over the years due in part to drops in newspaper circulation, but redemption rates have also shrunk. A 2019 study from Harvard University, Georgetown University and Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf attributed the lower redemption rates in large part to busy two-worker households opting to forego coupon hunting for small savings.

Recently speaking to The New York Times, Sanjay Dhar, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, said he believes part of the reduced redemption rates is because older shoppers on fixed incomes seeking coupons are challenged finding them online. He said, “A lot of this isn’t driven by the response to coupons. It’s driven by coupons not reaching the right people.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you agree that digital-only coupons discriminate against the elderly and lower-income households? Is there a path to incentivize most shoppers to connect digitally without mistreating the technology-challenged?

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22 Comments on "Are digital-only coupons discriminatory against the elderly and poor?"

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Neil Saunders

Digital coupons are more inaccessible for some, there is no doubt about that. However, if coupons are important for retailers and brands then they won’t want to use methods that limit the spread of them. Moreover, the number of coupons and flyers that are popped into our mailbox every week suggest that the age of the physical coupon and flyer is a very long way from being dead!

Zel Bianco

Some apps tend to be rather quirky, so unless there are kids around to help older consumers navigate, then yes, they do discriminate and should be made made easier to use across the board.

Bob Amster

If digital-only coupons discriminate against certain demographic groups, it is — in my opinion — an unintended consequence of an attempt at streamlining the process of offering discounts and collecting data.

Georganne Bender

You want to cheese off a customer? Tell them they can’t have the same deal other shoppers have. It’s an easy fix in a department store because coupons can be placed at the cash wrap for customers who do not have one. It’s a different story in a grocery store because there are vendors coupons to consider as well.

Coupons can be added to the circulars grocers print weekly, and direct mail is still being utilized by vendors. Every option should be exercised so that all customers can be served.

Christine Russo

This is a tough one. Perhaps there is a way grocery stores can partner with senior centers and community centers and sponsor computer classes that include online shopping and how to understand online discounts. It’s an opportunity for outreach.

Rich Kizer

Digital-only coupons can certainly discriminate against the elderly and lower-income households. Let’s call this our great sales prevention program. Do you want that? I don’t. There will always be costs to doing business.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

I am a huge proponent of technology; it has added speed and convenience for consumers and lowered costs, and improved processes for retailers and brands. However, technology is not neutral, and every company needs to consider its impact on its customers and employees. The introduction of technology should not limit access to services and offers. App designs can be sensitive to the less technologically savvy consumer, but access is a tougher nut to crack.

Oliver Guy

This is a conversation I have been having with older relatives for quite some time. The potential of non-inclusive nature expands across many areas — train tickets, car parking and even allergen menus in restaurants now often require a smartphone for access.

In addition, I have also seen in-store technology that multiple generations struggle to use — perhaps with those older than “digital natives” finding things most difficult. When this is your core audience, this has potential issues in terms of adoption, revenue and take-up.

Promotions are often measured based on rate of redemption — measuring this based on target demographic could well highlight where issues need to be addressed.

Dion Kenney
6 months 5 days ago

Whether intentional or not, it is observable that electronic distribution does not reach all parts of the population equally. Even seniors that have smartphones (a measurably lower percentage than the 15-40 demo) have fewer apps, are more likely to use a computer for internet, and are more inclined to traditional phone usage (conversation and, to a lesser degree, text).

It has been widely noted that the “cost of being poor” meant missing opportunities to save. The lack of access to the internet (whether from lack of computers and smartphones, high-speed service providers, tech-literacy, ageism. or financial constraints) is one more dimension of the “falling behind in modern America” phenomenon which should be of concern to government, federal, state, and local.

Matthew Pavich

If so, paper coupons are discriminatory against younger shoppers who aren’t waiting with bated breath to get the Sunday paper and cut out the weekly coupons. The simple fact of the matter is that there are numerous ways to promote a product using multiple levels of technology. Sophisticated retailers use the best analytics to understand their customers and offer the right products through the right media and platforms at the right discount. They also leverage these capabilities to prevent truly discriminatory practices (i.e. prevent unintended price differentials by group/gender, etc.) It’s also critical that they do everything they can to ensure that their apps/technologies are as user friendly as possible to drive better adoption across all age groups. Finally, they serve their most disadvantaged shoppers through charities, donations and community programs to help eliminate gaps between those who can afford certain technologies and those who cannot.

Dave Bruno

As one who provides constant “tech support” for elderly parents, I see their access to products and services limited by their access to technology in many areas of life, including digital coupons. Smartphones unlock so many things that are very difficult/impossible to access otherwise, and I don’t see that trend slowing down any time soon. While we can’t/shouldn’t stop technological evolution, I do think as a society we can be better at helping laggards. And the large number of people without smartphones cited in Tom’s post should tell grocers that their is still a very high ROI potential in continuing to serve low-tech shoppers with non-digital options.

Gary Sankary

Retailer marketers look for channels to reach their customers where they are, on the media they consume. I don’t know that “discriminatory” is the correct term here. There is an issue of access that needs to be addressed.

Doug Garnett

Yes. They do discriminate in this way. Digital coupons also don’t fit into any decently structured approach to shopping like those which coupon clippers have relied on in the past.

Al McClain

Of course this is discriminatory. We all know that many elderly folks don’t have and can’t use smartphones. Many poor people can’t afford the phones and/or the data plan to go with them. Poor elderly people are in a double bind. It may or may not be intentional but common sense says it’s happening. One solution might be to have a weekly flier at the store entrance, with good signage in large print. It would eliminate the cost of mailing and a much smaller number of these filers would need to be printed. It might not be profitable, but it would provide some measure of equal access and would be the right thing to do.

Steve Montgomery

There is no question that digital coupons are less likely to he used by the poor and elderly for the reasons pointed out. The does not make them discriminatory unless that was the intent, and I doubt it was. That being said, they can be problematic to use.

Based on personal experience, our favorite grocery store offers two levels of discounts. One for “loyalty” card holders and for selected sale items at an additional discount for those who use a digital coupon. The catch is, they admit that the digital coupons don’t work well on their app and the recommended process is to go to the website and then add the discount to your card. Frankly the process is time consuming and not worth the effort.

Ryan Mathews

Yes, they do discriminate in practice, but the question is, is that deliberate or just the results of entitled folk assuming everyone is just like them in terms of access to technology? I suspect it isn’t the former. As to how to correct this, how ’bout an in-store kiosk that allows the non-connected to easily access digital offers?

Craig Sundstrom

It’s obvious that if you don’t have online access, you don’t have access to things offered thereon. Is this “discrimination”? Then isn’t just selling something “discrimination” … against people who can’t afford it?

A more meaningful question is, how do you get coupons to people? Newspapers used to be the way, but papers cost money too (a lot of money for my local paper). That would seem to leave mail, or in-store promotions. I’m not sure how efficient either of these methods is.

James Tenser

Older consumers may not possess a mastery of how to use digital apps to obtain offers, and poorer consumers may not have access to smart devices that enable access, but all those consumers understand what a loyalty card is.

Food retailers especially have a responsibility to ensure that the less-digitally-enabled have a lower-tech alternative they can show at the checkout to obtain at least all the advertised TPRs they can see in the circulars or tagged on the shelf.

A crucial aspect of customer service and relationship management is to help those shoppers sign up for those cards. Ideally this could happen immediately after checkout, with a resultant refund on the spot.

If some personalized offers and gamification remain more dependent upon digital apps, well OK then.

Brad Halverson

I doubt there are many retailers, especially in grocery, who are knowingly discriminating. The goals and investments for many of the best tools to create a greater loyal customer base, to help them get the most of their customer experience means digital platforms are the best way to accomplish this.

I still encourage grocers to have a small stack of weekly printed coupons or deals at stores to allow the small segment of customers who can’t sign up for a digital platform or have difficulty navigating on their own. It doesn’t have to cost much so they can participate too.

Rachelle King

The truth is, digital-only coupons are going to alienate some shopper base, no matter what. This is true whether they are elderly, lower income, low vision or otherwise challenged with digital technology or access to digital technology.

The short answer is, there is no reason technology should exclude anyone. If a consumer shops in-store or online, they should have the same experience and the same opportunity to save.

Technology does not have to be a limiting factor. Any retailer who allows it to be is taking the easy way out.

One option is to put coupon kiosks in stores where consumers can check offers same as online. CVS has led the way with affording this level of in-store access. It is possible.

It’s unfair to accept that consumers may be left out because of age or economics; they are shoppers and buyers too. If other social groups were acknowledged to be digitally disadvantaged, would stores take more action?

Gwen Morrison

I hesitate to stereotype seniors as less able to access tech including digital coupons. For some it is difficult, for others it is not.

Personally, I have struggled to ” get the deal” using my phone. Promotional offers need to fit into the cadence of shopping. Once we are asked to stop in the aisle, pull out our phone, get to the app (often with poor connectivity in the store), and add the coupon to our loyalty account, the squeeze is not worth the juice.

For those with limited data plans, it really is an imposition and can be unaffordable. Retailers and brands should evaluate what the experience of redeeming an offer is to the full range of shoppers.

Anil Patel

Offering coupons and discounts are a part of retailers marketing campaigns. Here, I don’t see a need to bring up the subject of equal rights for the elderly and lower-income households. The coupons are certainly not a social welfare program. Therefore, it’s not a requisite for all income groups to have an access to those. Retailers usually implement such tactics to cater to a particular target audience. If they are intending to aim at a digital audience, the strategies will be explicitly framed for them. Although, some retailers do try to offer a similar customer experience in stores as well. Costco is an apt example of such a case. If a product has an applicable coupon, the executive will automatically apply it during the checkout process.
Ultimately, it’s all about acquiring and retaining customers. To get the desirable results, some retailers may choose to plan strategies differently from the rest.

"The simple fact of the matter is that there are numerous ways to promote a product using multiple levels of technology."

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