Refunding makes cents

The San Juan Star


NEW YORK There was some suspicion among some people in a Waldbaum's supermarket in Mount Vernon. N.Y., that Susan Samtur was somehow pulling a fast one. When the cash register totaled her grocery bill at $48.87, she reached into her handbag and produced not a wallet, not a checkbook, but a fistful of refund certificates entitling the bearer to such items as a free half-gallon of milk and three pounds of free chopped beef. After the cash register subtracted all the refunds, Mrs. Samtur's bill shrank to $2.15.

The clerk gasped. So did other shoppers on the checkout line. Before long, one of the managers walked over to see what all the fuss was about. "She should have a sign on her that says Wanted by the FBI" he said, pointing to Mrs. Samtur. "She should have numbers on her."

Mrs. Samtur smiled at his retreating back. "He's only teasing," she said. "He's a very nice man." Then, popping a free Hershey's Chocolate Kiss into the expectant mouth of her 3-year-old son, Stuart, Mrs. Samtur wheeled a brimming shopping cart from the store.

It was all perfectly legal. And all perfectly routine for this 34-year-old mother of two, who is famed in the supermarket aisles as one of the so-called Coupon Queens. The title is a bit deceptive, however, since shoppers in Mrs. Samtur's league do not rely merely on store coupons clipped from newspapers and fliers. What pays off for them are the manufacturers' certificates and refund offers found on specially marked packages and occasionally on the store shelves. In the ranks of supermarket shoppers, they belong to an elite subculture known as refunders.

Coupon clippers are common. According .to the A.C. Nielsen Company, which keeps tabs on such things; coupons are used by eight out of 10 American households. By contrast, only one family in five has a resident refunder. "It doesn't really excite that many consumers." A Nielsen spokesman said. "They have to wait four to eight weeks before getting anything back."

Even so, there are enough reminders out there to hold conventions every year, enough to spur the sales of bumper stickers saying "Refunding makes cents," and enough to support at least 60 monthly newsletters, typically listing hundreds of current refund offers, many of which require no special forms.

For example, the April issue of Refundle Bundle (Box 141, Centuck Station, Yonkers. N.Y. 10710) reports that the Oh Roy Corporation of San Fernando, Calif., will mail $1 to anyone who sends in the words "100 percent mashed potatoes" from live packages of its product. To most people, this sounds like a lot of Oh Boy mashed potatoes but not refunders.

Refunders simply winnow through their alphabetized POP (Proof of Purchase) files, accumulated after years of clipping and trading with other refunders around the country, until they come to potatoes. Then they say, "Oh Boy."

Refundle Bundle is published by Mrs. Samtur and her husband, Stephen, who teaches health and physical education in a Bronx .high .school. In six years, they say, the circulation of their folksy little newsletter has grown from '13 friends and neighbors to 30,000 far-flung refunders who now pay an annual subscription rate of $9. But success has not changed Mrs. Samtur. "No, I'm hooked on this." she was saying the other day in her cheery kitchen in Yonkers, where a POP for No Nonsense Parity-hose clung to a refrigerator door and a row of Del Monte spinach cans, shorn of their labels, sat on a shelf. "I'll never be able to throw away a label or a box top or an inner seal. I still love when I come home from the store with free food. And when I come home from a trip to find my mailbox stuffed with 20 or 30 envelops filled with money or free coupons, that's the part I really love."

The part she doesn't really love is salvaging what some people call trash and filing all those curling baby food labels and flattened cereal cartons. "But it's organized," she said, pointing to a pile of boxes in her garage. "I do it on my way down to the laundry room."

Also organized is Mrs. Samtur's paper work. It takes only five hours a week, she says, adding that new refunders can expect to spend much more time until they develop "a little system," Her system involves using address labels and mailing out an average of 100 refunding requests each month. As a result, she says, she receives between $1,200 and $1,500 in cash and certificates good for a minimum of 50 percent off on her weekly grocery bill.

"The refund checks go into special saving account;" said Mrs. Samtur, also known as Mrs. Refund at the bank. "Sometimes I use the money to pay the oil bill and one year we went to Florida. I figure the interest offsets my postal costs, which come to about $15 a month.

Her wheeling and dealing behind the supermarket cart is awesome to watch. The trick, as Mrs. Samtur demonstrated at Waldbaum's the other day, is to shop when the store is doubling the value of coupons. Thus, her $2 refund certificate on turkey roast, for example, was worth $4 on their double value day. Dropping a $4.49 roast into her cart, Mrs. Samtur predicted, "I'll pay 49 cents for that." She paid nothing for $2.99 worth of chopped beef: "Borden's cheese sent me a $1.50 coupon on hamburger. Double, that's $3. They want me to remember to use Borden's to make cheeseburgers." Since Mrs. Samtur keeps a kosher kitchen, she never makes cheeseburgers.

Chicken soup is something else. With a big grin, Mrs. Samtur helped herself to a package of chicken noodle soup, courtesy of Nestle, and box of crackers, courtesy of Nabisco. "It's a tie-in deal.'' she explained. "Lipton's Cup-a-Soup and Sunshine Krispy have also teamed up on the soup and crackers idea. They're offering a $1.50 refund." From soup, Mrs. Samtur moved on to everything including nuts. Among the many free or almost free items falling into her cart: Oxydol soap. Seven Seas salad dressing, Lenders bagels, La Pizzeria pizza, Celentano pizza, Marcel tissues and toilet paper, Cracker Jack, Canada Dry soda, Hershey's candy, Top Job cleanser, Cycle 4 dog food, Dellwood milk, Ziploc sandwich bags, Maxwell House coffee, Buitoni casseroles, Heinz ketchup, Ragu spaghetti sauce and so on. As his mother shopped, Stuart made several vain attempts at impulse buying from his seat in the cart. "Wanna get that.'' Stuart said, reaching for a box of Alpha-Bits cereal.

"No, no Stuart," Mrs. Samtur told him. "We have a coupon for Bran Chex."