Mary Pat Pankoke used to call her friends from the grocery store if she spotted a good deal. "If Tide was on sale, and the newspaper just had a coupon for Tide, I’d call people to let them know they could get it for almost nothing," the Parkland mom of two said.
Friends began telling Pankoke, 50, that she should teach classes on couponing. Pankoke turned to her mom, Billie Gacka, 78, of Coconut Creek, who had been couponing for nearly 50 years. The two launched the business "Coupon Classes" and www.CouponClasses.com in November 2009. Here’s how they did it.
"We wanted to teach people to use coupons to maximize their savings," said Pankoke, who has cut her grocery tab by 50 to 75 percent pairing coupons with sales. Coupon Classes offers two-hour couponing workshops to employers, clubs and individuals in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Public classes are $20 ($15 each for groups of 10 or more) and include $20 in coupons, a coupon organizer and a goody bag of freebies. Their website lists grocery and drug store deals, plus other discounts.
Gacka, a retired teacher, started couponing nearly 50 years ago, when her husband died and she was left alone to raise five kids, ages 12 to 17. Pankoke, who used to be mortified by her mom's coupon use, "saw the coupon light" when she had her own kids, Kate, 22, and Adam, 15.
Gacka and Pankoke’s first business venture together was "Treasures for Tots," a website they started a few years ago to buy and sell used toys to frugal parents. But the work became too labor intensive, and Pankoke said they began looking for a similar venture that would be recession-proof.
With Coupon Classes, Pankoke, a former insurance rep accustomed to speaking to large groups, teaches the classes and keeps the website updated. Gacka assembles coupons and goody bags for classes and handles behind-the-scenes duties.
The women created a class outline to cover common questions and offer tools to maximize savings. A PowerPoint presentation was developed to maintain a level of professionalism. Pankoke began researching items for the website.
"We wanted to understand and verify coupon policies at the different stores," Pankoke said. The women visited retailers, asking managers about their coupon policies, then verifying the policies on the retailer's website.
At B.J.’s Warehouse, for example, Pankoke had read online that multiple coupons could be used for an item. That is true, she said, depending on packaging. If it’s a multipack of individually wrapped items, such as six boxes of toothpaste shrink-wrapped together, you can use six coupons. If it’s a blister pack with six toothbrushes, however, you can only use one coupon.
Pankoke also researched fraudulent coupon practices, such as using coupons for trial-size items or making multiple copies of one-time-use printable coupons.
The women spent about $1,000 for a projector, business cards, website development and printed fliers.
Many customers come through word of mouth, but the partners have set up booths at PTA vendor fairs and at a consignment sale to gain exposure. In their booth, they demonstrate savings by displaying $1,100 worth of pantry items that they’ve bought for well under $100, Pankoke said.
The women use Facebook, Twitter and an email newsletter to build their brand. Their mailing list from "Treasures for Tots" helped. "If people want to save money on toys, they’ll want to save money on groceries," Pankoke said.
The mom and daughter teach one to three classes a week and reach about 50 to 100 people a month. The business began turning a small profit after a year.
Class attendance has picked up with the recession. But they are not part of the TLC-documented "extreme coupon" trend, which has some people swiping their neighbors' newspapers and collecting coupons by the truckload.
Pankoke would like to expand classes to more areas, get more exposure through media and bring on an intern to help with social media marketing.
Finding cost-effective locations to hold classes, besides coffee shops and community centers, is a big challenge, Pankoke says. Bringing on other people to expand the business is difficult, because the profit margin is so small. Holding classes on evenings and weekend also means she misses out on family time, Pankoke says.
Balancing work and family
Pankoke rises at 6:45 a.m. to check and respond to emails. She drives her son to school at 7:20 a.m., then returns home to research items to post on her website, coordinate classes and field requests for classes. She picks up her son at 3 p.m., then handles dinner and family arrangements.
On class days, she leaves her husband, Vince, and the kids home and heads out from about 5 to 10 p.m. When she returns home, she gets back on the computer for another hour or so, then heads to bed at 12:30 a.m.
"If you want to start a business, focus on something you know and love," Pankoke says. "Your passion will shine through, really allowing you to present your product with knowledge and confidence."