Coupon discrimination by large grocery stores targeted in Senate bill

Jan 30, 2024, 9:16 PM

Image: A dispenser at a Walgreens store dispenses coupons for Mentos vitamins....

A dispenser at a Walgreens store dispenses coupons for Mentos vitamins. (Photo: Lindsey Nicholson, Getty Images)

(Photo: Lindsey Nicholson, Getty Images)

Washington senators are debating a bill that puts online grocery coupons within reach of people who don’t have a smartphone or computer to access them.

Senate Bill 6265 would require larger grocery stores to honor posted electronic coupons even if consumers have not subscribed to the store’s app or website. (A PDF of a version of the bill can be viewed here.)

The legislation mandates that certain larger grocery establishments, defined as retail stores with over 15,000 square feet, primarily selling household food items, must credit any coupons or charge the reduced sales prices that are found online or in the store.

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State Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, is the sponsor of the bill. He called a store’s refusal to honor a discount price available only online or on the store’s app discrimination.

“Food inflation is a reality, so it makes sense that the big grocers, who are requiring people to go online to get these discounts, should make these coupons available to people who cannot go online,” Conway said.

During the bill’s initial hearing before the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, Chair Sen. Karen Kieser, D-Des Moines, quipped about her online coupon experiences.

“I will just say that in my local store, they have such poor Wi-Fi, that you can’t open the coupon in the store, even though you have the app,” Kieser said. “So there are frustrations for all kinds of consumers.”

Testimony against the coupon bill

Two lobbyists for the grocery industry testified against the bill. Brandon Housekeeper with the Northwest Grocers Association said online coupons target a different customer base.

“Most of our members have a policy, that if there’s a discount available or that you see advertised somewhere, you can bring it to the store’s attention and they’ll honor those discounts and work with the customer,” Housekeeper said.

“I’ve been in the store, and I haven’t seen any placards or anything at the check stand that tells people that they can access these coupons if you’ll just talk to us,” Conway fired back to Housekeeper. “It’s not there. I’m sorry. It just frustrates me.”

Housekeeper concluded his testimony by asking lawmakers to reject the bill.

“We just can’t support something that mandates how we particularly apply these marketing opportunities across all mediums — because they’re not all meant to be equal,” Housekeeper said.

Katie Beeson of the Washington Food Industry Association, representing smaller grocers that aren’t large corporate chains, also testified against the bill, citing the need to scan manufacturers’ coupons.

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“So it’s important that you scan that physical coupon versus just honoring the register per the customer’s request because that gives the store an opportunity to be reimbursed for those products by the manufacturer,” Beeson said.

The core requirement of Senate Bill 6265 is to ensure that larger grocery establishments honor posted prices and electronic coupons at the time of purchase, irrespective of whether consumers have subscribed to the relevant electronic mediums.

Violations of this obligation are deemed violations of the Consumer Protection Act. The Washington State Office of the Attorney General could seek action against the grocery chain that doesn’t follow the law.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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