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Single Use Coupons

Recently in the news and especially spreading around social media (mostly on TikTok) a group of people have been exploiting self-service machines and their acceptance of coupons. In the UK generally coupons are not a large deal, and can’t be stacked causing those fables situations where a customer leaves with several trolleys full of goods and being paid by the store to take them. However, manufacturers generally send coupons for free products to either test their product, or to a specific customer if they write a letter and complain to them about a defect or faulty product.

In very recent times, users has circulated images of these coupons, duplicated them and then scanned them into the self service machine claiming multiple packs of a single item for free causing even a few branches of supermarkets to switch off all of their self-service machines. Many users are also seen tricking the coupon sensors by holding their paper in the sensor for a few seconds and then removing, the machine expecting the coupon to have dropped into it’s collection bin.

This would all be fine, except the coupons are not meant to be duplicated. They do have two barcodes on them. One for the supermarket kiosk to allow for the reduction, and another for the manufacturer to reconcile later and reinburse the retailer for. This means it’s almost entirely on the retailer to prevent fraudulent use of the vouchers.

Illustration of a colourful coupon to break up the display of content

How do we solve this issue?

There are likely many ways to resolve this. However, a longer-term issue would reduce fraud and responsibility on the retailer for preventing such fraud in the first place. Loopholes will likely still exist, but much reduced.

The solution we would go for is to replace the standard UPC barcodes with at least a QR code. Most checkouts these days are equipped with the ability to read such codes, and for those who scan them at home, including a link to a promotional webpage for the product on the coupon could be an additional form of advertising.

More importantly, the QR code would allow for more information as to the unique coupon number in the first place. Once scanned in the supermarket, a simple lookup could be called to verify and void the coupon for future uses. With chip and pin requiring access to the outside world, along with Tesco (the main supermarket being hit with this issue) supporting it’s own systems such as Pay+ and Tesco Clubcard this is almost garunteed.

This would also allow for more digital coupons whereby a product where this “destroys” the coupon on the shoppers phone could also be implemented. Further use of this information by a manufacturer could also include various targeting and information on shoppers behaviour (a coupon with an attached privacy policy would be a sight!)

It also removes the need for staff to periodicly empty each machine’s bin of coupons, collate them together across the store and then send them for reinbursment. For the retailer, this could also mean reinbursments could be achieved within a much smaller timeframe.


This type of system to work in all of it’s glory would require co-operation between all of the manufacturers using coupons, and the supermarkets to talk to each other. That in itself is a large feat to achieve, although not impossible. A scaled back approach could involve each supermarket storing the details of coupons as they appear (potentially even digitally signed by the manufacturer) and then submitting data periodically.

Although, in the industry where margins are tight and costs are always increasing, a more simpler approach may be required. As the coupons already contain tracking information, requiring the kiosks to also scan the additional barcodes on coupons registered as having them, would also allow multiple uses to be tracked in a supermarket database and preventing re-use of the same coupons.


What do you think of this exploitation and use of these coupons? Any other ideas for how to resolve this issue? Let us know on Twitter

Post published 22 Jul 2022

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