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Ask DSM Readers: Is Zip Code Couponing Ethical?

by Tara Kuczykowski on August 5, 2010 · 38 comments

zip code couponing

Photo by Mike Willis

Every week I'll pose a question for you to share your experiences and tips. If you have a question that you'd like me to post, I'd love to hear from you!

Recently Hope sent me an email wondering how other people feel about "zip code couponing." Sometimes, internet printable coupons are released, but you can only print them if you enter a certain zip code on the site. Some people will share the zip codes needed for these often high-value or rare coupons and others feel it's unethical, but we haven't heard an official answer from any of the coupon companies.

How do you feel about zip code couponing? Do you feel that it's just a matter of knowing where to look, like using a coupon-clipping service to get more of your favorite coupons? Or do you feel it's unethical because you're using them in a way that they weren't intended to be used?

Join the discussion -- add your two cents to previous Ask DSM Readers questions too!

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1 Amanda August 5, 2010 at 6:19 pm

I think if the coupon companies didn't like it they wouldnt allow it. Also it may be a way for the coupon companies to be able to give the higher value a more limited release. Because it is harder to find if you don't know its there.

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2 kirsten August 5, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I think it's perfectly ethical because most coupons that you print from one zip code are redeemable in another.

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3 Anna August 5, 2010 at 6:40 pm

I agree with the above comment, if you can redeem it in a zip code other than where it is available then it is ethical to print it.

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4 Dawn August 5, 2010 at 6:44 pm

I think it crappy they have zipcode coupons... if their product is offered over the entire states, the coupon should as well. It's zipcode bias! I will protest in the supermarket and town hall... or not.

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5 Luci August 5, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Unethical to descriminate based on where someone lives, but on the flip side maybe they only offer a limit number of coupons to print and why let someone where they don't distribute their product take a coupon someone else could use. Otherwise everyone should be able to use them no matter where you live.

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6 patti August 5, 2010 at 6:58 pm

i think its fine. lets think about it??? i live in houston so in my neighborhood alone there are about 6 zip codes for one master planned community. so why should i be limited to using my own zip when i shop all the stores within my community.

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7 Karen August 5, 2010 at 7:03 pm

I think it is fine and I do it. I agree with Dawn's comment about it being biased. I live in an area that is "well off", but we are not and I use coupons to help stretch my budget. I hear about all the great coupons being offered in the paper, but a lot of times we don't get them here and i think it is because people here are well off and don't use them and probably wouldn't use them if they were offered. Just my opinion of course :)

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8 kristen August 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm

I think I have more of an issue with things online where you enter an email to get something of a limited quantity and people use 5 and 6 or more email addresses...then it is gone before some people even get one...I think that is greedy and tasteless...I don't think zipcode printings are unethical so long as they are used and not going to waste...

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9 Joy August 5, 2010 at 9:49 pm

ITA :)

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10 Doreen August 5, 2010 at 7:20 pm

I think its crap. Its just like the paper. Never did understand Why one zip code or the States gets the good coupons and they get to save money and some don't . I think they should make it for every body paper and the internet Don't we live in the U.S.A .

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11 ShelleyB August 5, 2010 at 7:44 pm

It's all about standard of living - that's why such the difference in coupons. Just like gas is priced differently through out the US, so are home values, and wages, and thus products. It's all relative.

As far as obtaining them from other zips, I say more power to you! It's a legit coupon and you work hard for your money and I'm all about making the most of it!!

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12 ASmith August 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I think they would not allow it if they didn't want it to go on. I recall one day on Cellfire I put in my zip code and nothing came up and the system said enter another zip code.

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13 Beth @ In Good Cents August 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm

After years in Market Research, I have to speak up. I don't think it's "illegal" to print a coupon from another zip code. As for unethical, I can't ever decide, because I see both sides so clearly.

The reason coupons are only available in certain areas is largely because of targeted marketing. The company may notice that sales are lower in the suburbs of Detroit, so they release a coupon to that area only to attempt to increase their sales. Also, some coupons are actually illegal in certain states. For example, in Indiana, we can't use beer or certain dairy coupons, so companies don't release them to us. But, the companies do have reasons that have to do with their business goals.

I've seen too many take advantage of the system and it ends up hurting everyone else. So, because I know there are so many deals out there, I play by the rules. Even in this area, where I'm still up in the air.

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14 suzette August 5, 2010 at 8:36 pm

It makes TOTAL sense for many reasons why they don't make the coupon available to everyone. The first one is budget. Just like most of us, companies have to follow a budget. They may only have enough money to offer the coupon in 50% of the country. If that is the case, they are going to offer it where they are either trying to grow the brand awareness or where they have been able to increase sales in the past by offering a coupon. The company isn't excluding your zip code because they don't want to sell products in that zip code. The company may be trying to increase business in certain areas, but they certainly don't care if someone outside of that zip code buys their product. After all, a sale is a sale.

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15 Anne August 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Okay, would it be unethical to print a coupon from your zipcode. Then go out of town to another zipcode and use the coupon? I don't see the difference. I mean the coupons don't say can only use in zipcode xxxxx.

As far as printing more than 1, for the most part I am not against that. I see no difference in someone printing 5 copies and someone going out and buying 5 Sunday papers.

We are a family of 5. I print want my family can use. I don't selll the extras for profit either.

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16 Anne August 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Hope my post made sense. LOL It's been a long day and I am trying to catch of on the coupon news.

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17 Cheryl August 5, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I use to think it was unethical to use a different zip code. Now I don't, I think is BS that only certain zipcodes get the really good coupons. (but we are also down to one income)
When my sister lived in the Chicago area she would get killer coupons.
I only print them if I'm going to use them & I have never had a problem with them being accepted at the store.

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18 Anne August 5, 2010 at 8:40 pm

@Cheryl

When we lived in Bozeman, MT we didn't get coupons in our Sunday paper. I only got them if someone sent me some or online.

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19 Naome August 5, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I agree with Kristen. I have way more of a problem printing from 5 or 6 email address then printing 2 coupon max from a diffrent zip. I think it is fine

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20 Laura August 5, 2010 at 8:46 pm

I just don't agree with lying just to get a coupon, plain and simple.

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21 amy August 5, 2010 at 9:20 pm

There's a reason why they only offer those coupons in certain zipcodes...like they're only targeting a specific sector or area, most likely trying to stimulate sales in certain parts of the country.

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22 Ana August 5, 2010 at 9:41 pm

It's funny, because I've never even thought of it being unethical. Unethical (and illegal) would be copying a coupon, etc... not using a different zip code to get the coupons you need.

So no, I don't think it's unethical. And, like others, it really annoys me that different regions get different Sunday inserts, too!

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23 Anne August 5, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Those that think it's unethical, do you only shop in your zipcode? The zipcode you used to get the coupon?

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24 Debbye August 5, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Another thought: I have not seen a coupon site that REQUIRES that you put in a zip code to print coupons. You are able to put your zip code to get coupons that are specific to your area, but you can totally opt out of that if you want. Why would they allow you to opt out if they don't want you printing from a different zip code?

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25 Cindy August 5, 2010 at 10:13 pm

For me, a lie is a lie. It doesn't say "enter whatever zip code appeals to you at the moment". It says to enter *your* zip code. So it doesn't really matter what I think they might allow or what I can get by with. I don't like to lie.

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26 Rita Collins August 5, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Why would it be unethical? If you travel to another part of the country, you would possibly get different coupons in the local paper than your local paper. Also, as has been posted, you do not have to put in any zip code. If they are targeting a specific zip code, fine. But, they cannot truly think that only people in that zip code will use that coupon. That is absurd. Even before internet printable coupons, my grandma and her friends would send me coupons when I was in college.

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27 Jennifer August 6, 2010 at 12:21 am

I don't think it's unethical. To me, it is no different than purchasing Sunday coupons on ebay or another coupon clipping site that didn't come in my Sunday paper. There are times specific areas get higher value coupons in their Sunday paper and people have no problems trading or purchasing them outside the distributed area. What would be the difference?

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28 Lori August 6, 2010 at 2:00 am

Anyone who trades coupons or gets extras from ebay or coupon clipping sites would have a hard time saying this is unethical unless they are 100% certain the coupons they buy/trade are also available in their zip.

I buy sunday newspapers from a major metro area because the coupons are better than the ones in our tiny local paper. Where am I allowed to use them?

Also great point made by previous commenter. If you go to a different zip code to shop without making 100% certain that the same coupon was available for them how is that different?

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29 Melissa August 6, 2010 at 3:22 am

I don't feel the least bit guilty. I feel that if the coupon sites wanted to ensure we weren't using different zip codes they'd make you register and only able to use the zip code that you've registered with your address. But that's just my opinion.

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30 Sheri August 6, 2010 at 11:00 am

If it is unethical, then so is getting coupons (through coupon trains, ebay, etc) from other parts of the country because your area didnt get them.

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31 Peggy August 6, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I moved to Kansas from Ohio. I was use to big Sunday papers with lots of everything. Now I get about a 15 page paper with nothing. So I cross the border into Missouri and buy their local papers because they carry alot of what I'm use to. Also when I am on a site that asks for zip codes I play around a little just to see the difference. If I use my new zip code in KS there are usually about half the coupons that my old zip code in OH shows. So I definitely use my OH zip code. I don't think the product companies care about how we get their coupons as long as we buy their products. The more coupons I can get for a product like Tide that is on sale then the more Tide Im gonna stock up on before the sale is over. Supply and demand. Show me the coupons and I'll show you a happy shopper going back for more and bigger bottom line in my check book!

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32 Barbi August 6, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I live in a small town in Western PA....but I purchase my local Sunday paper, another paper from a larger metro area and the Washington Post. Each has some of the same coupons and also a lot of different coupons, with different values. As far as I see it, coupons are released by companies and out there for the finding. No one would ever bat an eye that I walked into a store and purchased the papers that I purchased. Why is it any different if I do the same searching on the computer???

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33 Scott August 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

The companies could easily make you put the zip in the first time you visit the site and they save it in your computers cookies so you couldn't change it. Since they have not opted to so that, they have tacitly given permission for the ol' zip switcheroo ;)

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34 Angela August 8, 2010 at 11:32 am

Hi - I'm actually at BlogHer and was lucky enough to attend a frugal bloggers breakfast hosted, in part, by Red Plum. I posed this question to the Editorial Director over our breakfast. She said that manufacturers will sometimes do this to test certain coupons in certain markets. And she told me she wishes bloggers would stop this practice as it annoys her to see it happen. Furthermore, she mentioned that sometimes if you attempt to use a coupon from a different area it may not work (i.e. "beep"). I then asked her if the store would get reimbursed if the cashier puts it through. She said NOT NECESSARILY.

Folks, sometimes there are reasons beyond what we can think or guess when it comes to these issues. I'm not a fan of people making assumptions without getting some information first. I personally found Red Plum's reasons compelling enough. As a blogger and Red Plum affiliate member, I have chosen to NOT post zip codes so readers can obtain coupons from areas other than their own. Take it or leave it, but I want my readers to know what they can count on from me. If you want to read more about my conversation, it's up on my blog.

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35 Beth @ In Good Cents August 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Angela, Thank you! Being affiliated with so many of the coupon companies has always stopped me from sharing, since I wanted to play by their rules. But, I did always wonder. This clears up a lot in my mind!

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36 Val June 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I agree with Angela and Beth - just because you can get away with something, doesn't mean it's right. That's why it's an ethical and not a legal question. Printing off of a website isn't the same as going to a different area to buy a newspaper either. You're purchasing that newspaper so you have the right to use those coupons. A printable off of a website is free for everyone to use and the website is at the mercy of it's guests being honest and ethical. We all love getting a great deal but let's not do it at the expense of other couponers or the companies offering those deals!

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37 Mir July 27, 2011 at 11:13 am

If there wasn't a reason for it, companies wouldn't restrict it. I think posting the wrong zip code to get a coupon is unethical because it is a lie for when it asks for YOUR zip code, making it unethical. I agree with the above Angela, Beth and Val and with the registration comment. Companies should have you register or determine your zip by your IP.

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