5 Tips to Win the Rebate Game

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A few years ago, while I was driving my goddaughter to gymnastics class, I stopped by the post office so I could mail in a $50 rebate on a computer I had recently bought. Sometimes, 10-year-olds ask the best questions…

  • “Why do you need to mail a rebate for a computer? Why don’t the people who made the computer just let you do it online?”
  • “Why do they have rebates at all? Why don’t they just lower the price of the computer in the first place?”
  • “Am I the only one who thinks this is stupid?”

No, I told her, lots of people think it’s stupid. Rebates aren’t so much about helping consumers, they’re more often about helping those offering the rebates. But explain to a 10-year-old that manufacturers purposefully make rebates difficult to redeem so most shoppers won’t do it? I wasn’t about to plant the seed of cynicism in a 10 -year old.

In 2003, two university researchers released the most thorough study of rebates [PDF] ever conducted. They quoted one retailer who put it bluntly…

“Manufacturers love rebates because redemption rates are close to none. They get people into stores, but when it comes time to collect, few people follow through. And this is just what the manufacturer has in mind.”

Not only that, but those researchers – two guys named Tim Silk and Chris Janiszewski – interviewed industry officials who admitted this…

Promotion managers informed us that redemption rates tend to be “very low” when the reward is below $10, that rebates of $10 to $20 on a $100 software product range between 10 percent and 30 percent, and that redemption rates on consumer electronics average approximately 40 percent. Follow-up discussions with managers and industry representatives revealed that promotions are deemed successful when they achieve incremental sales targets without exceeding the expected redemption rate on total sales.

In plain English, that means some manufacturers won’t consider a rebate program successful if even half of their customers mail in those rebates.

So what can you do to avoid rebate hell? Try these tactics…

1. Adjust your attitude

The best rebates often have the shortest deadlines and the most time-consuming requirements. When I bought the computer I mentioned above, I had 30 days to mail in a postcard with all sorts of personal information that barely fit on the tiny lines provided. I also needed to send a copy of the receipt and a proof of purchase from the box.

It was a royal pain, but I looked at it this way: $50 is more than I get paid for an hour’s worth of work, so 15 minutes of jumping through some silly hoops is better than working a couple more hours to make the same money.

Another thought that might help adjust your attitude: this is a game. Space out the rebate, and they win. Get what’s coming to you, you win.

2. Do it now

Nearly all rebates expire within 90 days, although most give you between 30-60 days and a few as little as 15. Interestingly, one of the university researchers mentioned above, Tim Silk, did a followup study and found that shorter deadlines actually meant higher redemption rates….

Our results show that the less time you give people, the more likely they are to redeem a rebate, provided they are aware of the deadline. Giving more time encourages procrastination. Consumers are likely to say, “I have lots of time, I’ll get around to it” and then end up doing nothing.

Use this insight into human nature to your advantage: As they say on TV, act now.

3. Don’t forget to keep a copy

Keep a copy of what you send in so if the manufacturer or retailer doesn’t respond, you’ll be able to do it again, or provide evidence that you’ve done it if that becomes necessary.

4. Follow up

While the researchers above didn’t mention this specifically, it’s certainly possible that some manufacturers deliberately don’t send out properly executed rebates in hopes that consumers won’t remember and let it go.

I asked Stacy if he had any techniques to address this potential issue and he said this is what he does: he has a folder called “rebates”. When he gets a rebate offer, before sending it in he makes a copy, then throws it into that folder. Every month, when he pays his electric bill, he opens that folder and checks to see if any rebates are still outstanding. If he’s gotten his rebate, he throws out the copy of the redemption form. If he hasn’t, he follows up.

5. Use it or lose it

When I got my computer rebate, it arrived in the mail as a check, which I promptly deposited. These days, more and more rebates come back to you as gift cards. Why? Because a lot of people don’t use those, either – some estimates are as high as 16 percent. If your rebate comes as a gift card, use it ASAP or sell it. We tell you how to Get the Most From Your Unwanted Gift Cards.

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