With more consumers shopping online, there’s a proliferation of discount codes (such as SAVE20, 25OFF, FREESHIP) enticing them to buy. The frustration: You fill your cart, prepare to check out, apply the code and — arghh — no savings.
On average, coupon/promo codes work only about a third of the time, says Walt Roloson, co-founder of Wikibuy (owned by Capital One), a popular online shopping browser extension that finds and applies coupon codes during checkout. Among the most common reasons a code doesn’t work — it’s expired, there are exclusions, it’s non-transferrable and, my favorite, just because it doesn’t.
Terri Lynn always searches for a promo code before completing any online purchase. “It’s part of my DNA. I’m not obsessed, it’s just something I do as part of my shopping routine,” says the media relations consultant in Naples, Florida. Lynn is such a fan of codes that if she sees something she likes in a department store, she’ll make a note of it, go home to her computer and search for a coupon code. “In the course of a year, I’ve saved thousands, and that’s not shopping excessively.”
Austin Varley rarely makes it into department stores. The self-described “huge online shopper” buys everything, including groceries, through his computer or smartphone. “I have limited time in my day to get things done. Online shopping saves me valuable time, and coupon codes save me even more money,” says Varley, owner of a Scottsdale, Ariz., advertising agency.
Even if you’ve been burned before by a bad code, you may want to try again. Here’s how to save as much as you can:
Determine whether a retailer uses codes. Says Lynn, “When I go to check out, if it shows a box asking for a promo code, 99% of the time that means there’s a coupon out there. I’m going to find it.”
Use a trusted source. Sure, you can search for “retailer name + promo code,” but you’ll probably get hundreds of results. The better path is to check websites such as RetailMeNot, DealsPlus, Coupon Cabin and Slickdeals. These sites work with thousands of retailers and brands, as well as user submissions, to aggregate sales and codes. At RetailMeNot, all codes are tested and verified before being published. In addition, the site solicits input from users who can indicate a thumbs up or thumbs down to rate a code’s usability, making it easy for you to see how often the code works. Other code-centric websites operate in a similar fashion. For example, Slickdeals puts a green check mark next to a verified code.
Install a browser extension. Among the most popular are Wikibuy and Honey. They automate the process. For instance, when you get to the checkout of an online store, you click on the Wikibuy icon and it tries every available promo code in a few seconds, selects the offer with the most savings and applies it. While there are no guarantees that a working code will be available, these shopping tools quickly not only find codes, but also perform the tedious task of copying and pasting them one at a time. One caveat with these browser extensions: They track a copious amount of your personal information, so be sure to read the fine print before installing.
Play hard to get. If you can’t find a code, one of Varley’s favorite strategies is to choose your items, fill your virtual shopping cart and, at checkout, “abandon” it, though bookmark the cart’s URL because you may need it later. “If you leave, a majority of companies will follow you across the Internet with ads giving you a discount off what you had in your cart. It’s called a retargeting ad and used all the time in e-commerce space,” he says. Once you have the code, simply click on the saved URL and apply it. With some stores, you may also get an email urging you to complete the transaction with a discount code as an incentive.
Set up a special email account. While joining loyalty programs can reap rewards, you are also likely to be bombarded with emails every day. To keep your inbox clear, create an account such as mynamecoupons@, suggests Amy Chang, lifestyle savings expert at Slickdeals.
Understand why codes don’t work. RetailMeNot’s Sara Skirboll says it all comes down to the fine print. A code may have expired, may not be applicable to specific brands, may not be transferrable or may only be able to be used once. It’s also possible your purchase didn’t fulfill the requirements of the code, such as spending a certain amount. Consider the source: Did the code come directly from the business or did a friend of a friend pass it along? Most people who share codes aren’t being malicious; they just don’t realize that they received a unique promo code.
Loyalty pays. If you are a big fan of a specific retailer, restaurant or brand (even local ones), sign up for its loyalty program, follow it on social media or download its app. Not only are you likely to receive promo codes, but you’ll also probably receive a nice bonus code on your first purchase just for signing up.
Go old school. I’m seeing more companies put online coupon codes in newspapers and magazines, as well as those catalogues and monthly mailers you receive via the U.S. Postal Service. Bottom line: Don’t toss those Valpaks, Money Mailers or similar “junk” mail before giving it a quick look-see for promo codes.
Take your time. Every retailer has its own strategy, be it monthly or quarterly, to cycle through coupons, says Roloson. That’s why it pays to join loyalty programs and to keep any email codes you receive, even if you don’t plan a purchase at the time of receipt. “A big part of the strategy is checking your email to see if a code is still available and/or is coming soon, based on past history.”
Shopping experts add that it pays to be patient and to find a code or deal before buying. Says Lynn: “Never be embarrassed. Never be ashamed of wanting to save money on a purchase. Never feel you are taking advantage of the discounts that are waiting for you to discover. Shopping online is very competitive, and merchants are striving to get your business by making tempting offers available to you.”