The coupon code is a slap in the face

You've decided to pay for something on the web. After hours of research, comparison shopping, and trying the demo it's time to make the plunge. You click "Buy Now,", enter your credit card information and you're just about to click "Checkout." And then you notice it. In the lower left-hand side, a little form field that says "Coupon code."

xkcd comic, 837

You want to pay for this product or service. You were prepared to pay the advertised price; now you know there is (or has been) a magical passcode that could get you a lower price. You fire up Google, and search: "product name, coupon code." You get pages of results: mostly garbage, some scams, and a few legitimate coupon sites. Unfortunately, the codes listed on those sites are a year old: you missed your chance.

Why do web apps and retailers do this to their paying customers? At the moment you're actually ready to buy something you get a slap in the face: "You're paying full price, but if you had our magic code you wouldn't have to."

Simply put: this is bad customer service.

I'm not opposed to running a promotion, or offering a coupon. It's the optics that matter. Instead of posting this constant reminder on your checkout page, remove the "Coupon code" field.

You can do this differently. Brad Sorensen had these suggestions:

Retailers would do better to give everyone a discount for a period or no one.

[Or] instead of coupon codes, they should have separate referrer URLs for people with the code so you don't feel like the loser who didn't get invited to the party.

Exactly.

Update (September, 2013):

I originally wrote the post from an anecdotal POV. I've just now started digging into the research. Here's what I've found so far:

  • Oliver & Shor found that: "prompting for a code in the absence of having one had negative effects on fairness, satisfaction, and completion when compared to the control." (Reference)
  • This study by Oliver & Swan (1989) found a big link between a consumer's perception of pricing fairness, and their overall satisfaction with a purchase. (Reference)
  • Xia, Monroe, & Cox found: "For price comparisons, the other-customer comparison has the greatest effect on perceived price unfairness because of the salience of such a comparison" (Reference)
  • This study by Google found that in a real-world setting, "more than 40% of shoppers have left a retail store without purchasing because they knew they left a coupon at home". (Reference)

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Published on July 15th, 2011
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