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On eBay, one man's trash has always been another man's treasure. But this time it's no cliché. Enterprising souls have taken to selling their junk mail on the popular auction site -- and people are buying.
Those pre-approved credit card offers may not have much resale value yet, but auctioneers have swarmed to resell the discount coupons that big retailers like Lowe's and Bed Bath & Beyond send out every week. Discount coupons -- typically good for 10 to 20 percent off a single purchase -- currently sell for about $1 to $2 on eBay, plus shipping. Larger coupon lots can yield $20 or more.
It's not exactly big business. Miriam Rubano, who describes herself as a "poor student," said she earns about $200 a month reselling coupons on eBay to help pay her rent. She was careful to point out, as most coupon hawkers note in their listings, that "most coupons are available for free somewhere, it just takes time and effort to obtain them. That is what people are bidding on -- my time and effort to clip and sort, not the actual coupons themselves."
While the practice is not technically illegal, coupon resellers are careful to attempt to disclaim liability for selling them, since many coupons are marked as nontransferable.
Selling questionable merchandise online is hardly a new idea. But coupon resales represent a potentially enormous business opportunity. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 3,000 companies distribute nearly 330 billion coupons each year. And people really use them: Some 77 percent of American households use about 8 billion coupons to save $4.7 billion at grocery stores each year, the FTC reports. That figure doesn't even include retailer coupons like those from Lowe's.
Lowe's, which wasn't aware that its coupons were being resold on eBay, frowned on the practice.
"The coupons are part of a special program for new customers who are moving into new store neighborhoods," said Matt Van Vleet, a spokesman for the home improvement chain. "They are not intended to be sold online. We are strongly advising to consumers not to buy any Lowe's discount coupons on the Internet. They may not work due to individual bar coding, and they are nontransferable."
But some eBay users aren't even reselling the coupons themselves.
Anyone can hop down to the local post office and pick up an official change-of-address booklet containing vouchers that, if filled out and sent in, entitle that person to a coupon for 10 percent off a single Lowe's purchase. Many eBay sellers hawk these vouchers in bulk.
Others have turned to unloading inserts from their Sunday paper. One seller who goes by the nickname charleysangelgirl clips Sunday coupons ("from a smokefree petfree environment") and sells them in lots of 100, typically earning about 30 cents, plus a buck for shipping.
A seller who goes by doyouneedcoupons (and wouldn't give his real name) used to sell three or four lots of coupons a day before his account was suspended.
He explained the quirky economics of coupon resale thus: "I buy inserts from people on eBay.... I use them for things I can get here for pretty much free, and then get rid of the coupons others can use. See, I can double and triple a coupon up to 99 cents, so the $1 coupons are no good to me, but they are to people in California and New York and such.... As of right now I have over 500 boxes of Brillo I got with coupons, all for free."
When asked whether he was worried that what he was doing was illegal, he declined to say. But he did agree that 500 boxes is an awful lot of Brillo.
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