Keep Our Families Safe
Be Careful With Coupons
Melanie Pianelli is 27 years old and the mother of two. In an effort to save money, she clips coupons and watches for big discounts and catalog deals when she shops.
By her own estimate, she has saved thousands of dollars on clothes and gifts for her children.
One day in the middle of 2000, Melanie’s husband, a police officer, learned that J.C. Penney had accused his wife of grand theft, conspiracy to commit grand theft, and that there was a warrant for her arrest.
In the presence of several of her husband’s co-workers, Melanie was arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched and detained for five hours.
As it turned out, the J.C. Penney loss prevention manager had accused Melanie of stealing. First, he claimed that a store cashier had illegally credited her account several times when she purchased items from the store’s catalog. Second, he claimed that the same cashier was giving her, in violation of company policy, a larger than normal discount on clearance items. Finally, the manager maintained that the cashier was illegally waiving shipping and handling charges for Melanie.
Every Penney’s catalog included a $10 discount coupon for purchases over $10. The coupon was limited to one per order, but was not limited to one per customer. So Melanie would purchase multiple copies of the catalog, place several orders at one time, and use the $10 discount on each purchase.
But rather than subtracting $10 from each order, the company charged her the full price and then credited her account, as company policy required. But Penney’s also gave a credit to customers when the purchased item was cheaper in the store than in the catalog. In this way, Melanie amassed hundreds of dollars in credits.
Melanie also knew, as any other good shopper seeking to save her family some money knows, that during a store’s clearance sale, items could be discounted by as much as 70 percent. Taking advantage of newspaper coupons offering an additional 10 or 20 percent off, Melanie was able to buy an $80 Barbie doll for $7, merely by taking advantage of the specials and sales offered by the store.
But rather than accept responsibility for its own actions, J.C. Penney maintained that it had probable cause to refer the matter to the police who would be responsible for proving the store’s allegations.
When Melanie decided to sue J.C. Penney for malicious prosecution, this same loss prevention manager was forced to admit that he was never able to ascertain that actual theft was involved in Melanie’s case, and that he had never even read the store’s policies concerning coupons and catalog credits.
This incident should serve as a cautionary tale for every family that uses coupons to save money. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of every opportunity to save money, as Melanie Pianelli did. But there are potential consequences to doing so.
This sentiment is best summed up by Melanie’s attorney, Mark Feinstein of Miami, who said, “It is so scary. This hits home for everybody, because everybody uses coupons. Now, stores will know that their actions have consequences…”
We can only hope, for the safety and welfare of our families, that this is true.