Coupons are a great way for cash-strapped consumers to save a little money and to be thriftier shoppers in these days of higher prices for many food items, including meat and poultry. Until recently, I was convinced that in today’s economic environment, coupons are probably being used more than ever. But I was wrong.

Approximately 3 billion coupons were redeemed in the US in 2012 for Consumer Packaged Goods — down from 3.5 billion redeemed in 2011, according to Inmar, a company that operates intelligent commerce networks. The company added that in 2012 marketers distributed 310 billion coupons vs 313 billion coupons that were distributed to consumers in 2011.

Free-standing inserts, which are usually an advertising brochure, card or leaflet that’s placed inside a newspaper or magazine as a reply coupon or discount voucher, continued as the preferred method of distribution — 88.8 percent of all coupons were distributed through FSIs.

FSI-distributed coupons also made up most of the coupons redeemed with 43.9 percent of all redeemed coupons. Redemption of coupons distributed in-store (instant redeemable, electronic checkout, shelf pad) was also significant, with these coupons collectively accounting for 32.2 percent of total redemption. For digitally discovered coupons, such as print-at-home, their redemption represented 4.6 percent of coupons redeemed, Inmar relays.

Regarding the 3 billion coupons redeemed, food-product coupons redeemed at a 2-to-1 ratio over coupons for non-food items. This continues a long-term trend in coupon use, Inmar said.

Why the drop in coupon distribution and redemption? Several belt-tightening behaviors among marketers might be influencing shopper behavior and coupon use, Inmar Analytics answers. One reason is the redemption period for coupons keeps shortening; the time allotted to shoppers to use coupons cut back to an average of 2.2 months, down from 2.4 months or 8.3 percent when compared to 2011. Meanwhile, the average face value slipped once more to $1.56, dropping 1.9 percent from last year’s $1.59 average. Lastly, purchase requirements increased, on average, 4 percent.

Regardless of this coupon distribution and redemption drop, coupons remain popular with consumers, insists David Mounts, Inmar CEO. Redemption trends are influenced by many factors, including the perceived attractiveness of the coupon offers. Advertisers must carefully analyze and understand consumer behavior while planning coupon campaigns, he added.

To his first point, the vast majority of coupons I run across in newspapers and magazines are for products I don’t and won’t ever buy — getting a coupon for such products won’t persuade me into buying something I don’t want or need. Same goes for coupons distributed in-store.

Savvy meat marketers have long been aware of the value of coupons. Sites run by Hillshire Brands and Tyson Foods, Inc. are good examples that leading companies view coupons as a very important weapon in their marketing arsenal. When consumers plan to visit the supermarket to buy their weekly meat and poultry items among other products, they can save some money by visiting such sites —as well as stand-alone coupon-sites — and printing out desired food coupons.

I’d like to see more coupons used, in particular, to entice shoppers into trying new meat and poultry products. For years I have heard marketers say all they need to do is to get a consumer to try their new product just once and future sales of this product will be assured. Not only will consumers feel good about buying something new for their families, they’ll also feel great about saving a little money in the process.