Attention, Marketers: Coupons Are Not Gifts

I celebrated my birthday recently and received a number of gifts from friends and family.

For those of you who didn't get me a gift, there's still plenty of time. Gift cards are always nice.

One of the perks of having a birthday in America is that restaurants will ply you with free stuff for your birthday. They're like little gift cards — a free sandwich here, a free milkshake there. If you play your cards right, you could eat for free for an entire week.

See? Fast food marketers send nice little gift cards, but what did you send me? That's right, the exact same thing I gave you last year. So I guess we're even.

Still, one of us has to break the cycle first, and it's not going to be me.

Some of these birthday freebies are rather generous. Others actually place a burden on me to do something more than show up. And still, others are making it harder and harder for us to enjoy.

Over the years, Starbucks has always given me a free drink, so I usually treat myself and get a large mocha latte. The problem is, Starbucks only lets me redeem my free gift on my birthday.

Several years ago, I had an entire month to claim my free drink, which was helpful because my birthday is near the end of the month, and I'm usually pretty busy at that time.

This was nice because I would schedule a time where I could actually enjoy my drink.

I don't just grab it at the drive-thru and pound it on the way to my next meeting. I like to bask in the specialness of this once-a-year treat, feeling cared for around my special day. I would pick a day where I could read a book and nurse my mocha latte for an hour, enjoying the rare delight.

Then, Starbucks shrank the window of redemption to a week. Now, I only had seven days in a fairly busy schedule to find that special window of time. Weekends weren't always an option, so I might only get to sit for 20 minutes or try to enjoy it during a long commute. It was less a rare delight and more of a rushed enjoyment.

And now Starbucks has cheaped out even more on people's birthdays, presumably to reduce the number of people who redeem their free drink.

Now, you can only get your gift on your birthday. No other days at all. Not the day before, not the day after. Only during the time the store is open between 6 AM and 9 PM. If you don't have time to get your drink at that time, you're SOL — Starbucks Outta Luck.

Starbucks made $29.1 billion last year, but they will only let you redeem your free drink on your birthday and that day alone.

Still, Starbucks isn't the worst offender of the so-called birthday treats.

This year, I received a birthday "gift" from a pizza restaurant that was not a gift at all. I won't name the company, but it's Mellow Mushroom.

To celebrate my birthday, the unnamed company — it's still Mellow Mushroom — sent me an email giving me $10 off a $50 order.

That's it. Not a small cheese pizza, not an order of breadsticks, or a free soft drink. Their gift to me was a 20 percent off coupon. That was it — a coupon.

To make matters worse, the coupon is only valid if I spend $50.

I would say, "It's the thought that counts," but I don't know how much thought went into this gift. It's like when your kid gives you a handmade "Free Hugs" coupon, except your kid is 33 and still lives at home.

Now, I'm not upset that I didn't get something for free. I'm overwhelmed with free offerings for my birthday. I don't even use half of them for my birthday.

My complaint is that a coupon is not a gift.

Let me say it again: A coupon is not a gift! It's a discount. A price reduction. An afterthought. I'm tired of marketers saying, "We're giving you a free gift. It's the chance to spend less money than you normally would. Happy birthday!"

Because now I'm obliged to spend money to use this gift. The burden is back on me. It's like your kid making the Free Hugs coupon if you drive him to the office supply store first.

To add insult to injury, there's an expiration date on my present, 30 days after my birthday. Maybe next year, you could give me a box of dead batteries.

So, now Starbucks only gives me one day to get my free drink — which I did use; I'm not an idiot — and Mellow Mushroom only gives me a 30-day window to spend $50, which I did not use.

Don't get me wrong. I love these little goodies that companies give. It's nice to be appreciated, and I make sure to visit those places throughout the year. After all, the whole point of their birthday gift is to earn repeat business.

But I don't think they should call a coupon a gift. It's a cheap afterthought. You forgot to buy something until two hours before the party, so you whipped out a coupon on some used printer paper and only gave me a short time to use it.

So, forgive me, Mellow Mushroom, for not showing more appreciation for the gift of a smaller financial transaction. I'll be more grateful for it next year.

When I pay you in free hugs.

Photo credit: Joel Kramer (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.