CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In just 12 half-hour episodes, a cable TV show on coupon clipping has managed to grab the attention of major U.S. retailers, give a boost to the struggling American newspaper industry and annoy established couponers. And that's just for starters.
Rank-and-file couponers grumble that the show has given coupon clipping a bad name and caused retailers to tighten coupon policies. They've also leveled accusations of coupon fraud.
Now as a new season of "Extreme Couponing" begins airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday on the TLC network, North Carolina finds itself center stage in the mania stoked by the show, which features over-the-top shoppers paying pennies on the dollar for groceries that they stash in every spare nook and cranny of their homes.
Two extreme coupon clippers from North Carolina - one from Concord and the other from the tiny town of Snow Camp outside Burlington - will be featured on the show this season as they shop at Lowes Foods, the Winston-Salem grocery chain.
Because of contractual agreements with TLC, neither Michelle Barnette, the Concord couponer, nor Shavon Via of Snow Camp would say exactly what they bought during their marathon grocery trips to Lowes Foods or how much they paid.
Barnette, 36, a mother of two teens who works for the Cabarrus County school district, was a casual couponer until one day in 2008 when her husband was laid off from his construction job.
"It was kind of scary," she said. "We had no idea it was going to happen. He just came home one day and said, 'Friday's my last day,' " Barnette recalled.
Although her husband has since gone back to work, Barnette said, she remains a "nonstop" coupon shopper. She will appear on the show's Oct. 5 episode.
Via, who is in Wednesday's 10:30 p.m. episode, the second of two back-to-back shows, did say it was not her biggest couponing feat. Her largest haul ever remains a trip to Kmart several years ago during a Super Doubles promotion, which made coupons worth up to $4. That day, she walked out of the store with $2,500 in groceries for $5.
Via, 31, the mother of four young children, grew up in Snow Camp, the daughter of a farmer. She credits her coupon skills to her recently deceased grandmother. "I couponed with my granny since I was little," Via said.
This season was Lowes Foods' first time participating in the show, and the store wasn't pleased with the experience.
"If we had it to do over again, we would not have done it," said Lisa Selip, a corporate spokeswoman for Lowes Foods who said the show was full of misrepresentations and sensationalism. "Hindsight is 20/20."
A case in point, she said, is contained in a promotional clip recently released online. It shows a man arriving in the grocery aisle seconds too late to purchase an energy bar after an extreme coupon shopper put every last bar into her cart.
"The guy who walked up to the shelf was one of the crew members," Selip said. "It was all staged."
She said Lowes, which considers itself a coupon-friendly retailer, initially thought the show would be a great way to showcase its stores nationally. "Call it maybe being slightly naïve," she said.
Selip says the chain deeply regrets its decision to participate in the show. "My hope is our customers know we're a company of integrity and they'll understand we made a mistake."
That anger could come from coupon clippers who'll see people on the show using more than 20 coupons a day. Selip acknowledged that the company waived part of its policy for the benefit of TV cameras.
TLC spokeswoman Niki Kazakos said in a written statement that the network expects the coupon shoppers "to understand and follow their stores' coupon policies."
Coupon clipping has been a time-honored tradition among penny-pinching Americans for more than a century since the first coupon was issued in 1887 for a free Coca-Cola. Over the decades, the popularity of the coupon has risen and fallen with hard times and prosperity.
Fast forward to 2009.
With a bad economy and the proliferation of online coupon blogs, which made bargain hunting easier than ever before, coupon use exploded.
According to industry figures, coupon savings soared 21.4 percent in the first half of 2009 when compared with the first half of 2008. That trend has continued into 2011, though the increases have been more modest. Consumers saved a record-setting $2 billion using coupons in the first half of 2011, according to figures released by the marketing firm Valassis.
Amazingly high numbers of Americans also are identifying themselves as coupon clippers - more than 80 percent in some surveys. In this coupon-crazy environment, the TLC network launched its show "Extreme Couponing" last spring.
The show, which drew an estimated 2 million viewers, has been a big pain for the retail industry.
Bud Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Coupon Information Corp. in Alexandria, Va., has harsh words for the show.
"TLC used to stand for The Learning Channel," said Miller, whose corporation represents more than 30 major U.S. manufacturers, including Kraft Foods, General Mills and Unilever. "What are people learning?"
Instead of showing viewers ways to save on their grocery bills, Miller views the show as teaching nothing but "unmitigated greed."
As the show's season ended in early June, national retailers began adding restrictions to their coupon policies to thwart extreme coupon copycats, Miller said.
A major beneficiary of the current coupon craze has been the newspaper industry, which is fighting dual problems: slumping advertising revenues caused by the poor economy and slumping circulation numbers as more and more people get their news online.
Official circulation numbers for the six-month period encompassing the first season of the TV show won't be available until October, but an informal poll of more than 100 papers showed all but a few were up in Sunday single-copy sales.
"And many were up in double digits," said John Murray, vice president of audience development at the Newspaper Association of America.
Jermaine Burns, budget and information systems manager at the Observer, said the newspaper has seen a rise in Sunday-only subscriptions and single-copy sales on Sunday.
A typical Sunday paper, which costs about $2, contains up to $300 worth of coupons. Many newspapers, the Observer included, prominently display the value of that Sunday's coupons on the front page.
But not all the extreme coupon news has been good for papers. Newspapers across the country, including the Observer, have reported a rise in newspaper thefts that coincides with the airing of the show.
Most Sunday copies of the Observer have been moved from racks to inside stores to try to protect them, Burns said.
The show's popularity has not been lost on rank-and-file coupon clippers, many of whom have posted scathing critiques on coupon blogs.
Most professional coupon bloggers condemn the show.
"For me, it stinks because it's not putting couponing in the best light and it's making it more difficult for my readers to coupon," said Collin Morgan, author of the national deals blog.
Like all deals bloggers, Morgan loves a bargain but not to the exclusion of family and friends and a normal life. "The show is extreme in everything. It's really unhealthy," she said.
Yet Morgan sees some positives to the show, if it opens the possibilities of coupon savings to the uninitiated.
The new season of "Extreme Couponing" has a full slate of 12 shows, featuring the stories of 24 couponers.
And there's already talk of a spin-off, this one involving a competition among coupon shoppers.
Observer staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.