Bed Bath and Beyond’s Big, Ubiquitous Coupon: An Oral History

The F.B.I. found one in the junk drawer at the Santa Monica hide-out of the notorious mobster Whitey Bulger, which goes to show that gangsters are just like everybody else.

There’s probably one or two clipped to your car’s visor, and there could be a pile in the lobby of your building right at this moment. God knows your mother-in-law has a folder full of them.

The 20 percent off coupon from Bed Bath & Beyond — a homely and oversize mailer known as Big Blue — is omnipresent, unmistakable and a joy to deploy in the chain’s endless aisles. It’s also an oddball marketing achievement where the promotion became a stand-in for the brand itself.

At the postcard’s height, hundreds of millions of them found their way into mailboxes each year, an enormous logistical challenge that could go wrong up to the moment they arrived at your door. But that made Big Blue a bona fide cultural phenomenon, so familiar it became a basic-cable plot point.

Between its humble beginnings as a one-off promotion and its partial transition into digital distribution, Big Blue birthed an underground market for bargain hunters and pointed questions from Wall Street.

But it’s still a good enough deal that even the company that created it might not be able to kill it off. And it might not want to, either.

This is the history of Big Blue, in lightly condensed excerpts from the people who were there.

Bed Bath & Beyond started simply in 1971 as Bed ‘n Bath, a single store in New Jersey with lots of sheets and towels — and prices low enough that people didn’t have to wait around for a semiannual department store sale.

WARREN EISENBERG (co-founder, Bed Bath & Beyond) I’m standing here talking to my first saleslady.

MITZI EISENBERG (his wife, in the background) Your first good one!

WARREN EISENBERG Len [Feinstein, his co-founder] and I talked about it, and we said that we’re not going to do advertising. No advertising of items, really. We were not going to change prices and run sales. That’s a very costly way of doing business.

And plus, why not just tell the customer that we’ll give you a discount on the item you want — and not the one that we want to put on sale? We’ll mail a coupon, and it will be a lot cheaper.

BETH GROSSFELD (senior marketing manager, 2006-19) The thing I remember being so intrigued by was that the company had not spent a dime on a branding campaign, ever. There was no big television commercial, no big splash in the newspaper saying we were a cool place to be. There was only the big, blue coupon. The big, blue coupon was our brand.

But not yet. In the early years, the coupons were infrequent, attached to circulars and for offers like $5 off a purchase of at least $15. But then Rita Little, who had gone through the executive training program at the now defunct Abraham & Straus department store chain, came along.


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