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Commissary Shuts Down Extreme Couponing 'Abuse'

In a move to "protect the commissary benefit," commissary officials this week announced they are once again putting the kibosh on a system that has allowed extreme couponers to get major cash payouts. To do so they will be limiting special orders and no longer allowing shoppers to split transactions in the pursuit of cash back overages.

It worked like this: a savvy couponer with stacks of a high value coupons matched to a low-price item at the commissary would file a special order request with customer service for as many of the product in question as he or she had coupons.

DeCA would then order and ship, free of additional charge, that item to her store. If the coupon's value was higher than the price of the product, the shopper would actually earn a cash payout of up to $25 by purchasing it. If they bought enough of the product to have a payout of more than $25, the rest of the money would be given to them in the form of gift cards. To get around the gift card rule some shoppers would split the order into multiple transactions, leaving the store with cash as well as the  product in question.

Want to read about "the great KY lube incident of 2011?" Check out my Military.com story about the policy changes.

And here's where it got ethically fuzzy. Because of the commissary's previous returns policy which allowed any number of returns at any time for any reason with or without a receipt, the shopper could then come back into the store and return all of the product for the full sale price and make even more money.

For example, if a shopper purchased 100 items at $2 each with a $3 off each item coupon in four different transactions, they would make $90 buying that item (since they would have to pay the five percent surcharge, which is applied to the item's price before coupon). If they then turned around and returned all 100 of those items, they would get back $210 since the return is for the full price of the item plus the surcharge.

In the end they would make $300 simply by shopping at the commissary.

The new rules, originally announced Feb. 26 on the commissary's Facebook page, make a few changes.

First, they outright block special orders of more than three cases or 36 units of any given item as well as frequent or multiple orders by the same person. (In the past, the rules required those who placed orders like that to be flagged as "suspected abuse" -- but did not outright ban the practice.) Next, they stop this return business by no longer allowing returns of what they are calling "unreasonable quantities." And, finally, they ban the practice of splitting orders into multiple transactions just so shoppers can score an overage.

Overages are still allowed. But they have to be scored the way the rules intend -- as a up to $25 cash payout and gift cards thereafter.

There are a few exceptions. Commissary officials told us the goal of this policy is simply to keep people from abusing the benefit. If you are placing special orders for on-base functions, you can go ahead as you always have. If you are driving 100 miles once a month to buy cat food and need to make sure they have enough in stock, they said, you're still good to go.

Now, it's important to note that using the system to make money isn't costing the commissary in terms of the product or the cash payout. The commissary gets reimbursed by the manufacturer for the coupons. Unless the product is perishable and cant be restocked on commissary shelves when returned, the $290 we talked about above is NOT coming out of the commissary's pocket. It's also worth noting, again, that in the past these practices were supposed to be flagged as commissary privilege abuse.

But the agency is spending money on the shipping that goes with special orders -- although officials said they don't track how much. And then there are the man hours required for processing those special orders, the returns and the coupon submissions and the time spent by other patrons waiting for mega orders to be processed.

For extreme couponers this change is a big deal. Most of these folks are not turning around and returning products -- but DeCA still, nonetheless, views gaming the system for this kind of profit as "privilege abuse." If DeCA's announcement about the new policy on their Facebook page is any indication, most couponers are using the special order system to avoid clearing the shelves for the rest of us while still being able to purchase the quantity of products they want or need.

You're probably asking yourself "who in the world needs more than 36 units of three cases of any given item?!" In defense of the extreme couponer, I will note that the ones we talked to, such as April Hughey, an Army wife stationed in Alaska, are keeping the portion of the product they need for their families and then donating the rest to organizations like the Fisher House. Admirable, to be sure.

But not every extreme couponer does this. We've all seen the TLC "Extreme Couponing" show where shopping has reached hoarding levels. None of those featured on the show were commissary users, but they gave us a peak into what an extreme couponer can become with garages and storage rooms lined with detergent and more of a product than a person could ever use.

It's also worth noting that the new rules should completely shutdown people who use the commissary to buy large quantities of items for resale off-base. That practice has been long banned but, in some cases, difficult to enforce. If shoppers are completely banned from ordering more than three cases or 36 units of any given product or making frequent other orders and are actively banned if they attempt to do so, keeping track of the abusers is going to be much simpler.

Will this new policy impact you? If so, how?

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