Tuesday June 7, 2011

They may not have 400 bottles of soda stockpiled in their basement next to a year's worth of paper napkins and 100 jars of pickle relish, but local bargain hunters are pushing the limits of discount shopping after being inspired by a popular television show about couponing.

Encouraged by the series Extreme Couponing, Jennifer Hallock of Pittsfield said she started her search for serious retail savings early last month.

"I saw these people saving all this money, paying next to nothing at the store," said Hallock, a 31-year-old mother of seven. "With my family size, two kids in diapers and one in Pull-Ups, I need to save money. I thought, if they can do it, I can do it."

The show, which premiered in April, airs Wednesday nights at 9 on The Learning Channel. True to its name, it focuses on shoppers who go to extremes to find savings.

One episode features a woman who scavenges through recycling bins to find coupons. Another episode shows a shopper walk out of a store with hundreds of boxes of dry pasta. And one clip shows the result of extreme diligence: a $684 bill that gets trimmed to $8.

Hallock said she doesn't have stockpiles of food in the house, but she does save more than a hundred dollars on each trip to the grocery store. She said her shopping list is so heavily discounted that when she checks out at Price Chopper, a manager has to approve the sale.

At the Pittsfield Price Chopper where Hallock shops, about 10 percent of customers are saving nearly $100 on purchases that total approximately $350, according to Brian Broderick, the manager at the Hubbard Avenuestore. He said the savings come from coupons and the store's discount program.

And Broderick confirmed that when savings get that large, a supervisor has to come to the check-out counter to approve the sale.

"Every day we have to go over and put our numbers in," said Dianne Myer, the store's front-end supervisor. "These people are in here for hours on end, and they have two carts."

Saving that much money doesn't just take time in the store -- it also takes a lot of preparation at home.

Every week, Tami Maddocks of Hinsdale buys six Sunday papers just for the coupons. She said she spends two hours clipping coupons and organizing them into a binder.

But the secret to maximizing savings, she said, is to match coupons with products that already are on sale or to save coupons until the items you want are on sale. Maddocks, a 31-year-old mother of two, said sherelies on two websites that help users match their coupons with sales at local stores: thekrazycouponlady.com and coupondivas.com.

Jennifer Heck, 31, who has two children and lives in PIttfsfield, said she also uses a coupon binder.

"My husband says, ‘If you're going to get [good] deals, shop until you drop,' " Heck said.

Shoppers point out that there are obstacles when it comes to finding big savings in the Berkshires.

Karen Kelly Lefebvre, a 42-year-old Adams resident who has been clipping coupons for 25 years, said the area's comparatively small stores can make it difficult to rack up the huge discounts depicted on Extreme Couponing.

"What they show on TV isn't possible here," she said. "The stores just don't carry enough volume. If you have one or two coupons, sometimes you just don't get a deal because it's all gone."

Still, savvy residents can pull in a decent haul. On Sunday morning, Maddocks said she bought $107 worth of goods at CVS and paid only $5.

Maddocks said she shops responsibly, buying only what she needs. In contrast, she called the shoppers featured on Extreme Couponing obsessive and often wasteful.

"It is TV; they'll show the extreme side of everything," Maddocks said. "It makes it look a little bad, but it's important to know that's not the norm. What I do is more practical and realistic."

None of the shoppers interviewed said they would describe themselves as extreme couponers, per se.

"My husband calls me that, but I don't think so," Hallock said. "My daughters just call me the coupon lady. Really, I'm just looking at ways to save money."

Staff writer Amanda Korman contributed to this report.