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Be a Confident Shopper by Understanding Coupons…

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Have you ever really taken the time to look at your coupons and wondered what the heck all those different numbers mean?! Well, my goal today is to break down the bar codes, so that you are more confident and educated when using your coupons!

Please note that I am in no way trying to provide information that allows you to use coupons inappropriately or for an unintended use!

Here we go…

First of all, the company that produces the bar codes for coupons is called GS1. Over the past few years, they have slowly started making changes to how barcodes appear on coupons in efforts to bring data integrity and efficiency to coupons. The new system was needed to help companies with U.P.C. Company Prefixes greater than 6-digits and also to allow a larger number of optional fields for specifying the more complex coupon offers in use today.

Check out the progression of how coupon bar codes have changed over the years…

Coupons that were issued before 2008 had two UPC bar codes on them (called the UPC-A and the GS1-128), as seen in the top coupon image above. Then in 2008, the barcodes changed to look like the middle coupon above. They included the UPC-A (on left) and the GS1 DataBar Barcode (on right).

Starting in 2010 (and for the most part as of today), coupons started gradually converting to look like the example above. You will see that the standard UPC-A barcode is missing from the left-hand side and only the second DataBar Barcode is there now. The purpose for this is that the DataBar barcode contains a lot more information that will ultimately make your shopping trip go faster, such as the expiration date, weight of the products accepted, exact products, quantity and any other information or restrictions that the manufacturer would like to put in the coupon. (Example: Do Not double, etc.).

(Photo credit)

OK, so now that you understand coupon coding, do you really know how the process of coupon redemption works for stores?! What do stores do with those stacks of coupons that they collect from all of us savvy shoppers?

Coupon Redemption Process:

*Manufacturers design coupon promotions with their sales/marketing teams

*Coupons are distributed via newspaper inserts, direct mail campaigns, via the internet etc.

*A very “hip” shopper excitedly enters the store and proudly uses all of his/her coupons at checkout 😉

*The cashier scans the coupons and puts them into the cash drawer. Typically, at the end of the day the coupons in each cash drawer are added up as if they were cash, and that amount is added to the cash sum to be sure the overall total for the drawer is accurate.

*Once per week, all of the manufacturers’ coupons (and any coupons issued by the grocer) are sent in plastic bags or pouches to the store’s corporate headquarters.

*There is a very lucky person at headquarters in charge of processing the coupons. That person boxes all of the bags of coupons and ships them to a third-party clearinghouse.

*The clearinghouse is then responsible for doing the most important part of the coupon redemption process– separating the coupons by manufacturer or by scannable coupons versus damaged/torn coupons. Most of this process is done by hand. Sometimes coupons are put face up on a conveyor belt and move under a scanner that reads the UPC codes and tallies the amounts. However, damaged and torn coupons have to be tallied by hand. The clearinghouse then sends all the sorted coupons with an invoice to the manufacturer.

If you are a visual learner like me, you may find the video above quite helpful. It was produced by ProLogic, one of the largest clearinghouses in the coupon industry. Click here if you can’t see the video.

*The manufacturer will reimburse stores the face value of coupons or if the coupon calls for free merchandise, for the retail-selling price up to the stated maximum value printed on the coupon PLUS 8-12¢ for handling each coupon properly redeemed (this 8-12¢ value may vary slightly). Many times manufacturers, such as ConAgra Foods, will also reimburse retailers that are using a clearinghouse or billing agent at a rate equal to $5.50 per thousand of coupons redeemed.

*The manufacturer either reimburses the clearinghouse for the amount of the invoice, and the clearinghouse mails a check to the store for the amount of the coupons OR the manufacturer sends a check directly to the store and the store then pays the clearinghouse. (The clearinghouse is paid a certain amount per coupon by the store, plus shipping and handling).


If you are a new Hip2Save reader or new to couponing, you may not be aware of a great organization called the Coupon Information Corporation. The Coupon Information Corporation (CIC) is a not-for-profit association dedicated to fighting coupon misredemption and fraud. The CIC has an entire page of counterfeit coupons with attached pictures and information about each fraudulent coupon. If you have any questions or concerns about a specific coupon or coupon scam, you can contact the CIC by clicking here.[/h2s_box]

(Thanks to HowStuffWorks and for some of the info on explaining the coupon redemption process!)

Join The Discussion

Comments 61

  1. Teresa

    Wish you would make one of these for store employees. We are USUALLY (sometimes are- don’t leave nasty comments) not the problem. It is the employees.

    • ashley

      That is so true. I went to walmart the other day and used a huge stack of coupons. I had a very nice lady checking me out and took all my coupons. All of a sudden some snooty lady that also works thers comes up and stated acting like i was cheating them. She was saying i couldnt use all of the coypons. Finally the manager came over and didn’t make me put any of my products back. Thank goodness. SOME employees are just down right snobs.

    • Rebe

      Totally agree. The other day a manager at Kmart examined my coupon like it was a piece of important evidence, then told me she couldnt accept it because some of the numbers in the bar codes read: 122213 and she said that meant 12/22/13 and that that was the real expiration date, not the one at the top, next to the word “manufacture’s coupon expires 1/21/14…go figure! I was so mad, but there was no point in arguing… 🙁

      • Bridget


      • Ma24

        “Important evidence” make me crack up. I can’t even go into kmart anymore!!!!

        • Bianca

          K-Mart is the worst with coupons. I stopped shopping there because of it.

  2. TammyM

    I swear sometimes you have ESP… I think about a deal I would like and poof you post one for that product! Just the other day I was wondering how coupons worked and poof here you are again… lol! Thanks for the lesson!! =)

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)


  3. ashley

    Thanks for the info, luv this post as I was always curious how stores got properly reimbursed!

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      You are sure welcome!

  4. fran

    Wow, 90 cent coupons would be nice! I don’t see those anymore. We have a couple stores here (Acme and Wegmans) that would fully double those coupons.

  5. Barbara

    You know I was just talking to a cashier a few days ago about the two barcode system because we didn’t know why there were two codes.

  6. Robin

    So coupons are a win win situation for everyone!!!! 🙂 The amount of employees that hired just to count/scan the coupons..a lot of jobs produced and love that most of it is still done by hand, no job elimination there. I have a question though. This has happened to me twice. When a coupon states “one per purchase” does that mean per item or per transaction. I am assuming it means per item, but could be completely wrong since the “employees” said no it means per transaction. Would like to know a comeback for this one.

    • fran

      You are right, the cashiers is wrong. One per purchase means, if you purchase 4 like items, you can use 4 like coupons (unless there is a limit on the coupon, like P&G coupons). One per transaction means you can only use 1 coupon.

      • Robin

        I thought so, but her reply was “one per purchase does mean one per transaction”, of course I shook my head and said no, but got stumped at that point…lol. I just had her void the transaction and went somewhere else, where they took the coupons in the same transaction. It was the stores loss, and btw this was at CVS, where I had never had a problem with before this.

        • Leslie

          I have had this happen and I politely said I was confused as well until I asked a mgr. They explained like this (easier in person- I was buying 3 of same item with 3 coupons) they took one item and stated “I am purchasing this item with this coupon”, then moved the second item and said “I am purchasing this item with this coupon” and the same for the third item. Then stated “I am purchasing these 3 items in 1 transaction.” Which gave us both a visual of what is considered a purchase and transaction. I hope this makes some sense, again it’s easier in person.

      • Delia

        I’ve had the same problem with cashiers & I always correct them that it does not say one per transaction, it says one per purchase & I’m purchasing x amount of items. If a cashier is adamant that she needs to do separate transactions then whatever….there’s no common sense in that so that I don’t argue. If a cashier wants to spend all day doing separate transactions then who am I to stop them?

  7. Kim

    Thanks a-Bunch!

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)


  8. Nina

    I just had a customer service employee at walmart tell me I couldn’t use a coupon on a price match item, and I allowed it because I was not confident and did not have the policy, and got nervous about the line behind me. I’m going back tomorrow for my 2 bucks and speaking with a manager. It doesn’t make sense walmart is getting the money from the coupon back! Someone please correct me if I am wrong!

    • Katie

      You are right they should have taken the coupon. I price match and use coupons at the same time all the time!! I hate how cashiers are so uneducated when it comes to coupons. They should have some sort of training.

      • Guest

        I think proper training is they key. Sometimes I feel like a criminal when I use coupons. Just the other day in Walgreen’s I took some stuff to the cashier and as soon as she saw my coupons she exclaimed “I can’t take those coupons! You have to go see a manager!”. So I gathered up my items and went over to where a manager was cashing out another customer. I sat my items down and handed him the coupons fully expecting to be embarrassed or yelled at. But he cashed me out and took my coupons no problem. Go figure.

        • Nina

          I think cashiers are either uneducated about the coupons or under pressure not to screw them up and lose their job, but coupons are getting me in the store so they have a job! I feel as though there is going to be a lot of this going on and scrutinizing of the coupons so I’m adding all of the coupon policies to my binder. Thanks for your help!!

  9. LG

    Thanks for posting Collin about the different barcodes very interesting to learn about the difference over the years.

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      YW! 🙂

  10. Jana

    I run a medium size business. Our coupon system works a bit different. We have direct lines to manufactures so we actually send coupons directly to the manufacturer but the reimbursement is the same. It is applied as a credit to our account. We don’t have coupons on the level of a say CVS or Target but this is how we handle them. The only money we are out is the cost of the postage used to send them. Manufacturers also compare coupon redemption to items purchased. If you try to get reimbursed for more coupons than you actually ordered from a manufacturer you will have problems. It is not just the consumer that is responsible for coupon fraud.

    • Nick

      It says on the coupons that the manufacturer will pay .08 shipping/handling fee per coupon so your probably receiving credit for that and not even realizing it.

      • W

        Wow, Nick. You’re pretty presumptive about this business owners knowledge. I’m 1000% confident that the owner of the business is fully aware of their .08 credit.

  11. picchu24

    WOW!!! There is so much in couponing! Thanks for sharing, Collin!

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      You’re welcome!

  12. Analee

    I was wanting to ask if somebody could explain how to do the ibotta app. Seems complicated to understand. Thank you

  13. Astrid

    thank you for this very informative post. It is so interesting to learn about the life of a coupon 🙂

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      Glad to hear you found the post interesting… I thought so too!

  14. Lacy

    Off track a little bit…but…I went to the grocery store the other day to make use of my $1.25/1 Nature’s Valley coupon and I had 2 coupons because of how allows you to print 2 of them. (And yes, I did purchase 2 boxes) When I handed my coupons to the cashier she would only take one because she said since they had the same barcode, it was a photocopy. Am I in the wrong for having two of the same coupon (I usually end up having multiples of several due to multiple computers)?

    • Steph

      If it’s not photocopied there should be different numbers printed on the coupons … Not sure what the number is called but it is located in different places with the prints sometimes in right hand corner and sometimes closer above the barcode… That would be proof for the cashier that your not photocopying and hear are legitimate prints! Hope thus helps 🙂

      • Lacy

        Thanks! I’ll have to look my coupons over to see if I can spot the different numbers so I can be sure to show her.

        • melissa

          On your ips there a is a Verify code underneath the bubble dots/lines in the top right corner. As long as those are both different, then it’s not a copy. I’ve had to explain to cashiers that they’re not copies if I’m using 2 like coupons, bc most sites let you print 2 and my computer info is embedded in that dot code. Why would i risk losing my printing privileges by copying?

  15. Steph

    Thanks! Very interesting!

  16. Leslie

    This is great information to know! Thank you

  17. Sarah

    I love the link to the fake coupons. $20/1Huggies? I can’t believe it’s not real! 😉

  18. Jen

    I had a lady behind me in the checkout line excited about my coupons I was using. She showed me a printed coupon for $7 off Tide. I told her nicely that I think it was a fake. She said she uses it all the time at Costco. I tried to tell her in the nicest way possible that the dollar amount is awfully high for Tide. She just smiled and I left the store. I’ve been curious ever since, what would any of you have done? I feel that I didn’t say enough and people like her are why manufacturers are cracking down on coupons 🙁

    • Carol_R

      Costco doesn’t accept manufacturer coupons. They only accept their own store coupons that come in their printed book and they typically come off automatically. I am a Costco member. Now BJ’s will take manufacturer coupons but not Costco.

      A $7 Tide coupon is suspicious and I agree that it is most likely fraudulent. And using fraudulent coupons is stealing from the store since they won’t be reimbursed by the manufacturer.

      • jackie

        A cashier at my job accepted a printed coupon for $9 off one bottle of tide. The manager was so angry because it was clearly fake

        • mel

          The only $7 value that I am aware that Costco accepts is from Nature Made. But it comes in the form of a check. You can request it once you reach 500 pts.
          A $7 Tide printable is an alarm ringer! Not sure what else I would have done, other than saying what you did, and probably said it could be a fraud coupon.

  19. Desiree

    I’ve seen reimbursement fees per coupon as high as $.14! I was really surprised to see that one. I only wish I remembered which product that was…

  20. Lyndi Hedgecock

    I would love it if you could make a printout of the different items on the coupon so we can have them to take to the store with us. Like a generic coupon, but have arrows that show what is what (barcode, ect). I find it maddening to explain to the cashiers what all of the things are that they need to know so that they know all of my coupons are unique. I feel like if I had a printout I could leave one with them to educate them. Just a thought! Thanks! 🙂

  21. alv

    I went to Walmart tonight and used newspaper and coupons. The lady ringing me up said that she can’t take the coupons if they do not scan. Fortunately for her and me they scanned. Believe me, I would be holding the line up even longer waiting for a manager. I spent over $200.00 and I definitely would never try to scam .50 or $1.00 from them. I no longer try to price match with them since it seems like I can say this item is $$ at Target and get it for the reduced cost, but a .25 coupon is severely scrutinized. Walmart needs to better train employees on ringing up coupons and on their policies or eventually they will lose me as a customer.

    • Tia

      I’m not sure how it was fortunate for her but it was fortunate for you! That has been their policy for awhile now. If it doesn’t scan, they don’t have to accept it and I haven’t been a Walmart shopper for almost 6 months now. Don’t need the hassle for the small savings.

      • Nina

        Exactly. This Walmart thing is nuts, I posted above as to what happened. Today I went back and the manager (his name tag said 10 years of service) was very confused by me bringing up the policy, of course I didn’t have it with me b/c I was in a rush to work this morning, but it took him almost 10mins to find it on the computer. What????? What is wrong with the training system??

  22. Sue

    I tried to explain the different number codes that indicated a manufacturer’s coupon versus a Rite Aid coupon (from their video values program) but she said no, that it was still a manufacturer’s coupon and I could only use one. There was a line behind me so I didn’t argue the point but now I wished I would have.

  23. Kathy

    This information was soooo interesting. Thanks for the post!

  24. Tia

    The fraudulent coupons are very interesting. Does someone create these because they need the items? The $2 off PAM was funny…who needs that much cooking spray that they need to make a fake coupon? Lol

    • Ashley57

      I think they sell them on Ebay to make money…but Ebay has been cracking down on that too.

  25. VictoriaF

    How do stores prove that items where purchased? I am still confused about this part. I thought stores have to submit some sort of proof, like transaction ID where manufacturers can see that this particular item was actually purchased. Otherwise, stores could clip coupons themselves, if no proof required. Thanks for the post!

    • heidi

      I also do not understand this. I would like to understand this too.

  26. Malaya

    Can you use two coupons for a 2 for 5 deal?

    • Heather C.

      No, not unless you purchase 4 of something. 2 for 5 basically means that you are saving $2.50 on each item and the coupon is “attached” to both items. Sorry!

      • Malaya

        Okay thanks

    • amanda

      Yes. You can. Each coupon would attach to a separate product.

  27. CM

    I tried to use the BOGO coupon for the Borden’s cheese sticks, which came from, at Walmart. I was told they don’t take printed coupons for free products. He didn’t even try to scan it. I noticed that each cashier station has a list of coupon guidelines (I guess) posted which this cashier referenced. I just said thanks and left (it was the only item I was buying). I went back about a week later and that cashier took that coupon without an questions…

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