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January 21, 2009 at 5:16 PM

Tempest in a tea coupon

David Breitborde wrote to me today regarding a coupon for a free Starbucks beverage. The Starbucks in question is in his local Crown Hill Safeway store. The coupon was on the back of a Safeway flier — one he regularly received via snail-mail, though they’re also available at the store. Here, in his own words, is his conundrum, described in an e-mail message:

“Last week a coupon appeared for a free tea drink. According to the coupon it mentioned 1 per person per visit. I came back to the same Safeway store 3 hours later. A big scene was made involving the store manager. The coupon said 1 per visit not 1 per customer. I felt that I was allowed to come back later with another coupon. The Crown Hill Safeway ran out of tea drinks on Monday.”

David was teed-off on several fronts, as he later explained when we spoke by phone. One: the coupon was valid from Wednesday January 14 through Tuesday January 20th. So why were there no tea drinks available on Monday? But what really got his goat comes down to semantics, he insists. The flier read: “Store coupons redeemable only at Starbucks Coffee located in participating Safeway company stores. One coupon per visit.” The word “visit” is key, he said. “It said `visit’ — not `customer.'”

So, with the small-print firmly in mind, it stands to reason that he should be able to drink his fill of the free tea at say, 11 a.m., then come back around teatime to partake of another. But when he came in twice in one day, the Starbucks store manager and the Safeway store manager very reluctantly gave him his second free tea. “They said, `You were in here before, so we can’t honor it,'” David explained.

Safeway’s assistant manager, whom I just called to discuss the situation, was intimately familiar with David’s complaint — one that had been lodged at Safeway’s corporate office. “We were out of the product to make the beverage, and the coupon was still valid” on Monday, the assistant manager told me. “According to our corporate advisers, we do offer rain-checks for Starbucks items, even though it’s not a regular grocery item, and we are reimbursing that individual with a couple of rain-checks.” The next time David comes into the store, says the manager, “I have been directed to inform everyone else who works here that we are legally obliged to give him exactly that” — a free tea.

So, it sounds like David’s going to get his tea. But this is one tale of yo! perhaps better turned over to “The Ethicist” since it raises an interesting question. The one I’d like to pose to you: If a coupon says you can have a free tea, coffee, bakery item, “complimentary gift” or whatever per visit, should a single customer be able to come in on a single day at varying intervals for a freebie? What do you think?

Here’s what I think: Back before my neighborhood Linens ‘n Things closed, I often considered taking more than one dollars-off-one-item coupon to the store and buying several items. But of course that would have meant buying them one at a time — perhaps going over to Old Navy or Barnes & Noble in-between purchases. Or going on a busy day when I could stand in a different line each time and (hopefully) not be busted by astutely observant cashiers. But despite the fact that I often considered doing it, I never did: because I didn’t think it was right. But that’s just me. You may beg to differ. And if you do, I’m going to blame you for the bankruptcy and closure of one of my favorite stores!

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