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Voucher codes leave you worse off

Neil Faulkner

A staggering 51% of people always use voucher codes when ordering a takeaway, according to recent research from MyVoucherCodes. You might think they're penny pinchers, or you might think “good on them”. I think some of these people are probably paying more than they bargained for.

I've looked at random through 10 different vouchers from 10 different voucher websites to see how much they could save me. I then shopped around to see if I could have got the overall deal cheaper somewhere else.

The results of my experiment

A shocking 38 out of 100 “vouchers” were not vouchers at all. The price shoppers paid was identical whether you used the voucher or went directly to the retailers without them.

In these cases, users of the voucher websites are not getting any special, exclusive deals and are instead seeing glorified advertisements for retailers, which just encourage you to spend more, rather than save.

Ten of the vouchers were either too vague in the details or were blatantly ripping you off. Some of these tie you in with an apparently cheap deal, but then you have to buy refills or other ongoing items that are much more expensive than the competition.

Thirty-two of the 100 vouchers gave the impression of saving money on both buying direct and buying the same or similar products elsewhere. However, some of the shops and services appear to use voucher websites as their main or even only way to advertise. This means that the voucher prices are actually the real prices, not the ones on their websites, and therefore they merely encourage you to think you've found a bargain.

That means that fewer than 32 out of 100 vouchers I tested will genuinely save you money. I saw savings of £21 on a laptop compared with similar specifications elsewhere, a saving of maybe £50 on a holiday to Amsterdam, £39 less on a basket of 15 books than at the usual cheap websites, free snacks at a supermarket and £27 less on six months' worth of contact lenses compared to the discount websites.

[Related feature: How much can you really save using coupons]

Hidden issues

However, the majority of the 32 deals that appeared to save you money contained more clandestine problems.

Because of the way they are structured and presented, almost all of these promotions encourage you to buy more and spend more and to do so more frequently. Many of them are extremely manipulative, to the point that you can't help but admire the ingenuity. Just one example is from women's clothes store Whistles, which offered a £15 gift voucher if you buy Elle Magazine – at a time when Elle has written up its top Whistle buys. Pretty clever.

It's clear that some industries, such as clothes and restaurant chains, are almost compelled to offer vouchers. It seems like once upon a time a cunning swine marked up their prices and then offered vouchers to make customers think they're getting a cheap deal, and then all its competitors had to start doing the same to retain their customers.

Also, it wasn't always clear in the voucher terms and conditions, but clothes stores frequently offer vouchers that can't be used during the sales or other promotions. This is because the sales are another version of the same trick.

You'll be thrilled to use as many vouchers as you can now and later you'll excitedly go to get a “bargain” in the sales. In both cases, you're usually not getting the items cheaply, but buying them at a reasonable to high price, as opposed to the rip-off non-sale price.

How to use vouchers

Lots of people like to shop and everyone likes a deal. Combine the two and we become grinning, easy targets for an old, old tactic that enables retailers to attract extra shoppers while charging them more. They tell customers they're getting a bargain and, incredibly, shoppers believe them.

In my experience, some of the cheapest shops overall don't offer vouchers and rarely even mention the words “discount” or “sales”. They are just cheap period.

So get out of the habit of looking regularly at voucher websites and cancel your email newsletter subscriptions to them, since that behaviour can be easily manipulated and will likely encourage you to spend more, rather than save.

Instead, only look for vouchers for specific products when you need them, and only after first comparing prices on Amazon and other cheap retailers. Shop around for your vouchers too, since different sites have different deals for the same retailers.

Set yourself monthly and annual budgets for all the things you enjoy buying, to ensure you're not manipulated into buying more than you should.

With clothes and restaurants in particular, don't just shop in them because you've got vouchers. If you're flexible about where you shop, shop around before using them.

[Related feature: How to use voucher sites]

From the horse's mouth

It's no wonder that the founder of one of the voucher code websites is already worth £60 million – all paid for by the happy retailers. Do you think someone could get that rich from vouchers if they were really saving us money?

If none of the above makes you treat vouchers with more caution, consider what one e-commerce manager wrote on a website for online retailers called

“Everyone loves a bargain, or likes to think they're getting one, so voucher codes (or discount codes) can really drive sales.” And he wrote that voucher codes can be “used to manipulate a whole array of customer behaviours, making them exceptionally versatile”.

[Related feature: How pound shops make so much money]

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