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In the days before checkout scanners, when large package goods marketers held the upper hand in the battle for supermarket shelf space, Procter & Gamble Co. could play the couponing card to force distribution. A retailer reluctant to add a P&G product would be reminded that a major coupon drop was scheduled for his area, and then be asked if he was going to disappoint all those coupon-clutching customers when they visited his store.

Today, the retailers more often call the shots. Cou-pons pop out of shelf-dispensers and checkout registers, and are available from in-store demonstrators and retailer ads. And some chains have loyalty programs that reward regular customers or store-card users. So P&G, which has reportedly been cutting back on its massive use of coupons for several years, now says it will test a no-coupon plan in three New York markets during 1996.

Colgate-Palmolive Co. has conducted some account-specific promotions in some markets that have given it insight into this idea. Likewise, General Mills has done marketplace testing.

With these giants seriously studying potential alternatives to traditional cents-off coupon promotions, the future of couponing becomes a bit cloudy. Especially so with Nielsen figures already showing cents-off coupon redemption in a slow, steady decline since 1992. That's an indication that coupon-clippers are finding new ways to budget.

P&G execs are plainly looking in different directions to engage the shopper; the company has made a big push to wean retailers from price promotions in favor of everyday low pricing strategies. And with the marketing giant now looking at coupons, it's clear all companies and media involved should help shape change.

Coupons should continue to play a useful role in marketing, especially in generating trial for new products. Meanwhile, all hands should be on deck when figuring out the best ways to bring a bargain to the consumer.

Fortune's Feb. 5 cover story, "What makes Steve run?," succeeds in raising questions about archrival Forbes' journalistic ethics, but does something else the Time Inc. magazine's editors clearly didn't intend; it raises questions about Fortune's editorial integrity, too.

Fortune uses Steve Forbes' presidential run as a platform to attack the competition's ad sales and editorial practices, claiming there is "an unusually cozy relationship [at Forbes] between those who edit the stories and those who sell the ads" and claiming there is a list of "untouchable" advertisers. Fortune goes to great lengths to justify doing the story, attacking the mainstream political press for being too soft on the Forbes campaign and noting that "any aspirant for high office must legitimately be asked about his relationship with special interests."

But Fortune has to realize that some of its readers and advertisers will question its motives and may doubt the magazine's ability to report objectively on a direct rival that boasts higher circulation and advertising pages. After all, Fortune stands to benefit if there is any backlash against Forbes.

This kind of competitive sniping is bad enough when done in the offices of agency and client decision-makers. It's a lot worse when done in a public forum. In this round of the fight, only Business Week looks good.

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