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Rainbow Grocery recently took a collective vote to end its popular coupon day, meaning that this month will be the last month for either a) loading up on wild-crafted seaweed, fancy cookware, expensive bottles of hooch, and other non-perishables like it’s the end of the world and there will never be a chance to buy anything again, or b) avoiding Rainbow like the plague on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays because it looks like the evacuation of Saigon in there and you have better things to do than read “Moby Dick” for half an hour while you wait in line behind an enormous cart filled with bee pollen and beluga lentils.

“The store was making money on coupon days,” writes Sarah, from Rainbow’s public relations committee, in an e-mail exchange with Mission Loc@l. “But there was a non-monetary price to the way it worked.”

In summary: reasons are complicated and various, but the store was so crowded on coupon days that it was at risk of losing old, loyal customers and overwhelming those worker/owners who did not thrive on the nonstop adrenaline of working a crowded store.

There will be other coupons, perhaps; that hasn’t been decided yet. And not to say there aren’t plenty of discounts available already — just that this particular one is on its way out. Originally instituted as an attempt to shift some of the weekend crowds to the middle of the week, it had become its own crowd-generating phenomenon.

What did people buy on coupon day? “The same stuff, but more of it,” says Sarah. Frugality and the recession played a role in boosting customers, but for many, something about coupon day overwhelmed logic. “There was a strange phenomenon,” writes Sarah, “where even though we already offer 20% off of vitamin purchases over $400, people would want to buy ALL the vitamins with their coupon, and end up spending over $400 on them anyway.”

So goodbye to all that. Goodbye to the ethical debates as to when it was acceptable to rip the Rainbow coupons out of the phone book in front of your neighbor’s apartment. Goodbye to the elation that one would feel upon finding a seemingly abandoned phone book, and the disappointment upon discovering that it had already been harvested of all its Rainbow coupons by someone quicker on the uptake. Goodbye to using a tiny piece of paper to justify the purchase of something really, really stupid. Goodbye to the unparalleled and extended opportunities to gaze into the grocery carts of strangers and guess what their homelife must be like, with all that bean curd. Goodbye to overhearing small children whine and beg for seaweed candy for 20 minutes straight, seemingly without having to stop to breathe.

We had a good few years. Coupon day, we will raise a toast to you, in Valhalla.

Many thanks to Rigoberto Hernandez for the reporting he contributed to this article.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Two problems:
    (1) If their margins were high enough that they could afford to discount that much, then their prices could have been lowered over all.
    (2) It made me (feel like) a sucker for shopping on non-coupon days.

  2. I shopped at Rainbow yesterday (Wednesday) around noon. Given that this was the first coupon week after the Burn, one would have expected lines out the door and mayhem; but the reality was far different. I didn’t even have to wait in line.

    So yes, the coupon days can cause some extra crowds on certain hours on certain days (say, around 8pm on Thursday); but overall, I don’t think it’s a huge problem.

  3. to ann and dean — part of the point of being an owner of a cooperative is that you have self determination and choice in your work environment. If you are lucky and your coop is well run and has a good community of shoppers, that might mean you don’t have to be forced to work the long, miserable hours that have become de rigeur in corporate america, at every level.

    if the rainbow worker/owners want to work a bit less, that is their prerogative. and, since they own the company, they can do what they want. it sounds alien to many people simply because anyone working in the corporate world doesn’t have that choice. but think about it: if you could make all the money and benefits you needed and work less, why wouldn’t you?


  4. The workers/owners are overwhelmed at working in a crowded store? You’ve got to be kidding me! They should be grateful that they have a job in the first place.

  5. It’s all academic to me–meat is mouthwatering, and Rainbow does not have meat. Therefore, my mouth does not water at Rainbow.

  6. Hi all – the wording of the article has been changed to remove the word “employees” – “worker/owners” is more accurate. And Sarah – I was aiming for compressing rather than editorializing. If there’s something that you feel misrepresents what you originally wrote, please let me know.

  7. To Heather, the author of this article: Your snarky sarcastic article indicates your editorial view. We Rainbow shoppers are used to those kind of comments from you Safeway/Lucky’s/Raleys shoppers. Although they almost sound the same there is a difference between “Cooperative” and “Corporate”. Big Sale this week that you might enjoy: Hot Dogs! 1% off! Aisle 87! Safeway!

    1. To Emmet: I too hate snarky and occasionally shop at Rainbow, but love funny and found Heather’s piece both perceptive and made me laugh out loud. Your last line did as well. Thank you. There’s simply not enough humor offered up these days. Best, Lydia, the editor.

  8. This is Sarah from Rainbow. I just wanted to comment that the only place that I am actually quoted above is where you see quotations. Otherwise there is some editorialization occurring. I believe Rainbow wants to continue to offer ways for our customers to save $ especially during difficult financial times. Personally, I understand that people get frustrated in crowds but are willing to make an extra effort to save $. If you don’t have unlimited spending cash you have to evaluate your priorities. I am grateful that our customers choose to come to Rainbow to support a worker-owned, locally owned business that tries to carry better products and don’t mind if they need coupons and discounts these days to do that. So, thanks to everyone who shops at Rainbow. I really hope that we will always be improving in every way, including our competitive pricing and our customer’s experience here in the store.

  9. The article refers to “employees who did not thrive on the nonstop adrenaline of working a crowded store.”


    The writer of this article does not understand Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. There are NO employees at Rainbow. There are only workers. The workers are the owners. There is no employer. Rainbow is a worker-owned and operated cooperative.

  10. I certainly dialed back my visits after the first time I had the misfortune of going on coupon day. The self-absorbed kooks who shop there are bad enough without it being magnified by the spectre of saving money. This will also cut down on a peevish Freecycle occurrence.

  11. Great commentary Heather! I’ll miss coupon day, sort of… I’ve been using it heavily since it began and do really appreciate the lowering of prices by 20%. I hope they find a way to do it in the future too… meanwhile, I’ll have to settle for my all-the-time 10% SFBC discount… not so bad really.

  12. i can’t help but think the underlying motive of discontinuing the coupons is to make more money i don’t care how “politically correct” they come off as. why not hire more people for coupon days? why? because they profit share over there and they’re grumbling because the profits are DOWN not up. at least whole foods is honest that they are out to make a buck.

  13. “and overwhelming those employees that did not thrive on the nonstop adrenaline of working a crowded store.”


    My goodness, how ever did they survive.