WASHINGTON – Jill Berry is always on the lookout for free things.
Last fall, the Woodbine, Md., mother of three figured out a great way to get some: online giveaways. She has entered about 40. She has won T-shirts, cleaning products, a small portable vacuum, olive oil, beef jerky and – best of all – a Nintendo DS on Web sites such as MeTime.com and TheMotherhood.com.
“The lure of free stuff is quite appealing,” she said. “I never considered myself a winner. I don’t think I ever won bingo. My name was never drawn from a hat. However, I’ve been extraordinarily successful at the giveaways.”
The recession has emboldened a certain kind of consumer: the mooch. With dwindling retirement savings, a higher cost of living and wobbly job market, they don’t just want discounts on items they used to pay full price for without a second thought. They want freebies – meals, magazine subscriptions, toiletries, you name it. They scour the Internet, make clever use of coupons or simply take advantage of struggling shops and restaurants that are increasingly giving away free things to lure customers.
“One of the things that makes us feel smart is getting something for free,” said Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist at JustThrive.com, a free online personal financial advisory service for people in their 20s and 30s. “During a recession, frugal is not a bad word. It’s a good word. This is something that people are supposed to be doing. So people think, ‘I’ve got to get on board.’ They’re searching for free more than ever because it’s a symbol of financial savviness.”
Businesses are heeding the call. For instance, in February, all McDonald’s in the Washington area gave away medium-size hot or iced coffee from 5 to 9 a.m. – with no purchase necessary. As tough times force people to make tough choices, restaurants know customers are weighing options more carefully.
“Consumers are quite quick to vote with their feet, so consequently it makes perfect sense that (restaurant operators) offer very targeted enticements to make sure that traffic continues,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association.
At Reston, Va.-based Wirefly, an online retailer of cell phones and wireless service plans, demand for the free cell phones that often come with plans versus upgraded phones that customers have to pay for is up 105 percent in April from April 2008, said Andy Zeinfeld, chief executive of the company.
Ryan Eubanks, 26 and a Frederick County, Va., resident, became so good at spotting freebies that he created HeyItsFree.net to share his finds. Lately, he’s gotten busier because businesses, hurting from a drop in sales, are offering more freebies. Marketing experts and behavioral psychologists said giveaways are more effective than discounts at drawing customers in and persuading them to try a product.
Many of Eubanks’ finds are toiletries such as shampoo, lotion and toothpaste. He also has coffee, snack bars, candy and other food items. Each day, he posts four or five free items. He said he vets the offers to make sure they are legitimate. If he’s suspicious, he checks the company’s domain name.
He offered other tips on weeding out bad offers. Don’t believe a company giving away high-end items because high-end freebies don’t exist. Don’t trust a company that wants you to refer friends. Don’t submit credit card or other information beyond an e-mail or mailing address to which the company can send the freebie. Watch for expiration dates, because many companies are not good at pulling outdated offers from their Web sites. And if you have to do anything more than fill out a simple survey for that freebie, think twice.
“If they’re making you jump through hoops to get the item, that’s a red flag,” he said.
Berry, who writes about raising three children, ages 6, 10 and 13, at www.writingmylifeoneblogatatime.blogspot.com, has even found a way to get free things while traveling. Last summer, she and her family drove to Skyline Drive in Virginia and booked two rooms at a hotel that gave them one gas card, two tickets to the Luray Caverns and two breakfasts a day for each room.
They also got a deal when they went with friends to the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament. There were 13 of them. Three with birthdays in April got in for free. “Made the trip more budget friendly for us,” she said.
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