Coupon Lady to Consumer Advocate: The Story of Finding My Dream Job
Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow
When I had my first child, I decided that there was no way I could leave him with someone else to raise him, see his first steps, hear his first words, etc. I felt God had given me a gift in my son, and it was mine and my husband's responsibility to raise him, so I quit my high paying, great benefits job with the state. And decided to become an entrepreneur. The search for entrepreneurial success did not come quickly. I did do well with home daycare and couldn't believe I was getting paid to raise my son, and other children as well. After a few years of that, I had a miscarriage and decided to focus on my own family.
When I got pregnant the next time, I was blessed with twins. I continued to provide daycare from home till I was five months pregnant with the twins. When told by the doctor that I needed to go on bed rest frequently, mornings and afternoons, I stopped the daycare. While on bed rest, I spent time researching what I could do once my twins were born to continue to earn money for my family. My then-husband was working full time but wanted me to go back to work formally so we would have a second income. I was determined to be home for my children, but also bring money in. After the twins were born, I decided to try my hand at crafting and doing shows. Although I LOVED creating things, it was so much work lugging all the items to craft shows, and after paying the high entrance fees, I sometimes wouldn't make any extra money.
The Birth of The Coupon Lady
Then I read in the paper about a woman who saved all kinds of money with coupons. She had given a class the night before, but I hadn't known about it. I contacted her, explained my situation with wanting to be home for my children, and asked her if she would be willing to teach me and a few family members and friends what she knew. She did, and I took the information and ran with it.
Each Sunday I would buy the local newspaper and gather all the coupons in it, compare the coupons to the sales, and plan a once per week mega-shopping trip. I would leave the kids with my husband and head out for 4-hour adventures to various stores in my town. I took my shopping totals from $120 per week, down to $60 per week for my family of 5. I regularly found all kinds of deals on food and toiletries so that I could purchase things for free or pennies, and donate them to various charities. I enjoyed it so much; I started sharing my knowledge with everyone I knew. Then I got the idea to teach classes for money as a way to start my own business and keep my husband happy.
My mom kept asking me how I was going to make any money at this. I told her I didn't know, but I would think of some way because I loved doing this and sharing the information with other people, and moms especially. I started teaching classes at Adult Education enrichment programs in my town and surrounding towns. The pay wasn't great because I was only paid for the hours I spent teaching, not any of the prep time. People seemed to enjoy the classes, and they started saving money. I once got flowers delivered to my house from a mom who had taken my class and started saving over $100 per week on her groceries from the tips I had shared in class. I started teaching to church women's groups, social service agencies, and in schools. Sometimes I would be paid, and sometimes I donated my time.
I had a thought in the back of my mind that I would love to teach coupon classes in an actual grocery store in town, and that they could help me advertise and get consumers to come to the classes. That seemed like a silly idea, though...what store would let me come in and teach shoppers how to SAVE money in their store? I started a monthly coupon group where some of my students and I would get together and talk about the deals we had come across and share coupons with each other. It was great, and as an at home mom, I enjoyed getting together with other women. They would bring their children, and our kids would play together while the ladies socialized.
The local paper did an article on ME this time, and I was surprised but happy to spread the word. This was back in the late-1990s, and many of the stores in my area started to have coupon wars. All the grocery stores in my part of Connecticut double coupons with a face value of up to 99 cents. That means coupons of 75 cents are worth $1.50 at the grocery store, etc. Coupons of $1.00 or more are accepted at their face value. In the drug stores and at department stores, coupons don't double, but again are all accepted at face value. The coupon wars were with grocery stores. Periodically they would print triple coupons in their fliers. That meant a 75 cent coupon was worth $2.25, often making a product free. Those of us who were good at saving money with coupons had a field day. There was a limit as to how many coupons a shopper could use at one time. Usually, it was six. But there was no limit on how many times you could shop in the same store during one week. People began to ask friends and family to save the triple coupons, and they would run into the store once per day for the seven days of the sale. Or they would have their husbands do it on their way home from work.
We were saving all kinds of money and stocking up on items for ourselves and charity. I always tried to teach my students to be kind to the cashiers and not take advantage of store policy. The cashiers got used to seeing me come in, but I never wanted them to think I was obnoxious so I didn't make them cash me out with ten different orders, nor was I rude to them. Sometimes I even was able to give them items I had gotten free. It was a glorious time! The cashiers didn't know my name so they would just call me, "The Coupon Lady."
Hooray For Shop Rite
The store that had triple coupons on the most regular basis was ShopRite. Before meeting the lady that had taught me about coupons, I never went to ShopRite in our town because it was on the poorer side of town and was generally considered to be dirty. I had a Stop and Shop near my home, so used only to go there. Once I learned the value of shopping at all the grocery stores in my town and shopping the sales at each store to save money on ALL my items, I tried ShopRite and found that they had very good prices. They were also less expensive than the two other grocery stores in town. I heard that ShopRite was an independently owned store and that the new owner and his family had only recently bought the store and were trying to improve it. There was a picture of him in the ShopRite flyer, and underneath was a caption that said something to the effect of his wanting to make his store better for all customers so to contact him with any question or comments. I had never seen this in any other store fliers before and was impressed with that. I started promoting ShopRite in all my classes and telling the students about the less expensive prices there, and the great deals we could get with triple coupons. One day, after coming home from his store and having saved a lot of money with triple coupons, I decided to give the ShopRite owner a call. I couldn't keep the excitement to myself anymore! I used to get a shopping high when I would save a lot of money using coupons. Some people get a clothing or shoe shopping high...but I get bargain shopping highs! I was really nervous as I was dialing the store...why I am not sure. It's not like he was the President, or Donald Trump...ha ha. But he was the owner of my now favorite grocery store, and in the business world, a world foreign to me, so I was nervous. He answered his phone, and I told him that I was a mom who shopped in his store, used many coupons and taught others to as well. I told him that we were all saving a lot of money with triple coupons in his store, so I had called to thank him. He didn't say too much that first time, just basically thanked me for calling. A few months later, with regular triple coupons at Shop Rite only, other stores began to accept competitors coupons, and so we could save money at ANY store we wanted thanks to Shop Rite. I couldn't help it...I had to call him again. His doing this was the best thing to happen to stay at home moms trying to stay on a budget and save money for their families. So, six months later, I called him again to thank him. I mentioned all the different places I taught classes and told him I was so grateful and excited about the triple coupons and low prices that I was promoting Shop Rite at all my classes. And so were my students. Something in that conversation sparked his attention, and he asked me if I would like to be part of his Consumer Panel. He thought I would be a good fit for that. I asked him what it was. He told me it was a group of shoppers who regularly shopped in his store, and they would formally meet once per month and give him feedback as to how he could make his store better. Unfortunately, no pay was involved, but since I was trying to make this Coupon Lady endeavor a legitimate business, I decided it would add credibility to what I was trying to do. I agreed to be on the Consumer Panel and was intrigued about going to my first meeting in November of that year.
The Beginning of a Wonderful Opportunity
My first meeting was really fun. There were about 12 other people there, all shoppers, but mostly older, regular customers. We were given snacks, and of course, they were delicious. The snacks at these meetings were usually baked goods from the store for us to try. Sometimes the snacks were new foods that the store was just starting to carry so that we could give our opinions about the item. Sometimes we were sent home with new items to try with our families, and my kids loved that. At the end of the first meeting, I was very impressed with the store owner, Ken Capano Sr. He seemed unlike the usual business owner in that he seemed to care about people and wanted to help his customers. During the meeting, a small voice in my head kept saying,"You should ask him about teaching a coupon class in his store." A smaller voice kept telling me I was crazy and that no store owner in his right mind was going to let me teach his customers how to save money. Wouldn't it mean if customers saved money in his store, that he would LOSE money? I decided I had nothing to lose, and approached him after the meeting, summoned all my courage, and asked if I could teach a class in his store. I told him I wouldn't ask for payment but just wanted to get the word out about how much money could be saved using coupons. I told him I had a special place in my heart for moms who wanted to stay home with their kids, and instead of having to get a part-time job to earn money outside the home, they could learn how to save money from their grocery budget without going off to work. He seemed very intrigued with the idea and asked me to set up a meeting with his secretary. Two weeks later, he had booked me to teach two coupon classes in his store and offered to pay me, PLUS he said if they went well, I could teach classes in his new store that would be opening in a few months in a nearby town. I was very happy. He sat in on both of those two first classes I taught. He told me that he enjoyed the classes. A few weeks later he asked me to come in for a meeting. I thought it was to plan the next classes, but I was about to get one of the biggest surprises of my life. He asked me if I would consider being his Consumer Advocate for his new store that was opening in six months. That's not what I had expected. I was very happy being at home with my children and teaching some coupon classes on the side. I wondered exactly what this would entail so asked him to explain more. He told me that first, over the Summer, he wanted me to contact as many consumer groups as I could that were in and around the town where the new store was opening. I was to contact all of them and see if they would be open to him coming out and talking to them about his new store ( which he was designing from the floor to the freezers, etc.) Then he would ask for feedback from them as to what they, as consumers, wanted in a new grocery store in the area. And he had a fundraising program he would also share with them. After the store opened, he wanted me to walk around on the floor and talk to customers and get feedback as to what he could do to make the store better. I was concerned because my son was going into third grade, and my twin daughters were just starting kindergarten, and I wanted to be available to them. He told me he respected that, and I could make MY OWN HOURS around my kid's schedule, and just bill him monthly. And he wasn't asking for full-time hours, so when I asked about still teaching coupon classes, he encouraged me to because he wanted me to be an objective person that customers felt they could trust...not a ShopRite employee. This was to be a consulting arrangement where I would be paid by him, as an advisor. This sounded too good to be true!!! I told him I would have to think about it and discuss it with my husband. He understood that and told me just to let him know my decision. As good as this sounded, and of course it did sound good to my husband because it would be more regular money that I was making with the coupon classes, I just wasn't sure. I wasn't looking to go back to work yet, and I had wanted to see what I could do with my Coupon Lady business but wasn't sure I would have the time. After discussing it with my husband, I decided to give it a shot. I went back to see the owner, and we agreed on an hourly rate, which was exactly what I had been making hourly 8 years earlier when I left my job to have my son. I was very pleased. I felt like I had won the lottery of jobs...if there was such a thing. This ended up being my favorite job of my life...so far!
My Favorite Job Brought Lots of Opportunities
I did this job for five years. It was amazing to me how much I loved what I did. A big part of it was working with the owner. He had such a heart for people, and with my background in social work, he allowed me to reach out to the community. We went to speak to 34 groups before the new store opened. I was amazed that he brought me with him to each session, and I didn't have to say anything...just be there as an advocate for the consumers, and I got paid!!! I got free lunches at Rotary Club meetings and Kiwanis Club meetings, free dinners at Lion's Club meetings, free breakfasts at Chamber of Commerce meetings, and lots of snacks at churches and schools. I remember often walking out of my house to go to a meeting, all dressed up, leaving my kids with their grandfather, and felt like I was the Queen of the World. It was such a special opportunity I had been given to be able to do work I loved, for someone I respected, and get paid very good money for it. And most of the hours I put in were during the school day anyway so didn't keep me away from my kids too much.
After each session, it was my job to call the groups back and ask for them to send one representative to be on the Consumer Panel for the new store. Once the new store opened, I would go to those meetings as well. When the store opened, I spent a lot of time roaming the aisles and talking to people...moms with young children in tow, older couples, people after church on Sundays, seniors on Tuesdays which was senior day in the store. I talked to everyone I could find and asked them for positive and constructive feedback about the store. I typed up reports and gave them to the owner with my conclusion at the end. Periodically I would send surveys to the people in my coupon group and ask for their comments as well. The store was 20 minutes from my house, so I was putting in 15 - 20 hours per week, which was a little more time once you added in the travel. And I kept up the couponing classes as well. I also started to promote special projects that the store was offering. There was a fundraising program where store gift cards could be bought in advance and groups could earn 5% back as a fundraiser. There was a school supply program where parents could sign up with their store cards through their children's school, and at the end of the year, the points they accrued with their cards would earn school supplies. There was an Earth Day program where all ShopRite stores offer free garbage bags, gloves, and seeds to any local groups that do clean up projects each Spring on or around Earth Day. I did so well promote that that during the second year, the owner's two stores helped more groups with cleanups than all the other ShopRite stores combined. It might have helped that the owner also provided water/juice and cookies for all the groups combined. At Christmas, I set up Christmas Caroling slots of area Brownie/Girls Scout and Cub Scout/ Boy Scout troops to come in and sing to entertain the customers. They were given a store gift card for coming in, and refreshments and the customers loved it. After the store was opened for about six months, and things were going well, he called me in for another meeting and asked me to be his Consumer Advocate for his first store as well. So, we started visiting new groups all over again, but this time in my town.
I was excited about the wonderful things the store was doing for the community and wanted to share it with everyone. So I asked the owner if I could get some press for him. He told me to go ahead, and I went to town. I learned how to write press releases, and started getting articles in the two local papers. I called radio stations and got the owner booked on a local morning program. I called the local cable company, and they booked him as well. The fun thing was they wanted both of us on the shows because they couldn't believe this guy that owned a grocery store was letting customers come in and find out how to save money at his store at my classes. Some days I couldn't believe it either. It still seemed too good to be true. A friend of mine was receiving an award for helping the community. She runs a human services agency said that when a new business opens in a town, it takes five years for them to get noticed and start winning local awards. You can imagine then how happy I was when a local Main Street group called to tell me they were honoring the store owner with a plaque for all he had done to help with the town cleanups and beautification projects...after only 18 months in business.
Because the owner wanted me to stay separate from ShopRite, and still be thought of as a consultant, I was having fun with my own business, and besides coupon classes, started to teach budgeting and other classes for moms in the area. I used my new found skills in promotion to tell my story and won a few online awards as The Coupon Lady. It was a wonderful five years, and I honed my skills in many areas. But since all good things must come to an end, so did this experience. The owner turned the business over to his sons to run, and I had some personal issues going on which made me have to look for a full-time job with benefits. But I found that the saying, "Do what you love and the money will follow" certainly rang true in this experience. And I have brought the skills I learned through that with me to other endeavors in my life.
And for those of you who have entrepreneurial dreams...don't ever give up because you never know what opportunity might be just around the corner!
Copyright by Karen Hellier, 2012
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© 2012 Karen Hellier