Holiday Coupon Generosity: A Christmas Miracle

Despite tough financial times, perfect strangers are suddenly spreading cheer by handing valuable store coupons to their fellow shoppers without a second thought. Jennifer Frey reports from the retail trenches.

Holiday shopping 2010: call it the empathy season.

It's a sign of the times that stores are issuing coupons like crazy to anyone who signs up for their Internet e-mails—in-boxes are absolutely clogged with them. In this struggling economy, coupon surfing has gone viral.

Do it right and you can get an entire season of Mad Men for less than $25. A gift card to Sears worth $300 for $150. A Calvin Klein wool coat for $32.

Coupon gifting, though, has become the true art form of this holiday season. A signature: standing in some godforsaken line and eyeing fellow shoppers with their piles of stuff, then reaching into the purse stuffed with coupons for every place from Banana Republic to Gap to Loehmann's to Macy's to Borders during what is possibly the greatest holiday coupon bonanza in history. And then offering a total stranger 20 or 30 or 40 even, sometimes, 50 percent off a purchase, because there's an extra coupon in there. It's Secret Santa for the masses.

Snapshots:

In line at Loehmann's, with two little boys, five at best, causing havoc, and insisting that they should be in the other, shorter line, pointing frantically, and not understanding there was one line with several checkouts. Mom—Elizabeth Strong—tries to explain while balancing multiple sweaters and a great Anne Klein coat on a major discount, that there is no cutting ahead. Dad at a loss. Two dark-haired teenage girls swing by—having already bought a Kenneth Cole wallet for less than $20—and offer up a $20-off-$100 coupon they didn't use. And, just for that glimpse of a minute, the frazzled Strong is rejoicing.

At Banana Republic, Catherine Schmidt, a wife buying a sweater for her husband, gets offered a 20 percent discount from the woman in front of her in line. She takes it gleefully, and announces "now I get to buy him new boxer shorts, too." Thanks for sharing.

At Filene's Basement, in a line for returns so long that one shopper waited 35-plus minutes to exchange a $16.84 silk tank, another woman who held up the entire line endlessly to add a pair of jeans on hold to a stack of items numbering at 17 didn't draw ire—she got an extra 20-percent-off holiday coupon from the guy behind her trying to exchange the perfume he bought that was the wrong version of Chanel. (Poor soul got much advice from those waiting on the differences in varying Chanel perfume brands).

So high on the moment, I took my Gap coupon and roamed the store, looking for someone to gift. Found a mom buying pajamas and checking for sale tags. Felt like an elf upon bestowing it.

For me, it started at the Gap. The company had issued a 40 percent off coupon good for a limited number of days, and I had printed more than one copy off the web. Was trying to buy something worthy of a Bat Mitzvah invite for my daughter at a top-of-the-line country club. In line ahead of me, a woman was buying coats. Lots of coats. Several hundred dollars worth of coats. It was my virgin holiday shopping moment: I pulled out the 40 percent off extra coupon and handed it over. Watched as she saved more than $200. It was holiday giddiness.

So high on the moment, I took my third Gap coupon and roamed the store, looking for someone to gift. Found a mom buying pajamas and winter fleeces and socks and checking for sale tags. Felt like an elf upon bestowing it.

The best place for this sort of activity must be Borders Books and Music, which spews out coupons to its regulars like candy on an almost daily basis. Perhaps the store with the longest checkout lines in holiday history, it's also a virtual shopping aisle of money-saving among strangers. As the line snakes past the holiday cards, the gift card stands, the wrapping paper, elegant boxes, and all those ridiculously overpriced but-oh-so-appealing bound books and candles and handy Burt's Bees little gift sacks with hand cream and lip balm, it's like a massive negotiation:

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"I have one computer printout for 50 percent off a single item—if you are buying an entire DVD set at $62, I'll give it to you for your 33 percent off my whole purchase."

Mostly, though, it's just people handing over coupons to the people behind them in line, rendering a $75 Lego set a steal at only $30.

The result: No one carps when someone in front of them holds up the gift-wrap line for 10 minutes by insisting that everything be wrapped separately. Call it a Christmas miracle, but there is joy in spreading coupons this year.

Jennifer Frey is a former sportswriter for The New York Times and columnist and long-time feature writer for The Washington Post. She is also the author of "Chamique: On Family, Focus and Basketball " and is currently writing a memoir. She lives in Washington, D.C.