Coupons can be a great way to promote, increase, and improveyour business. They can be used to entice new customers,move hard-to-sell merchandise, "time-shift" your customersby getting them to come in during traditionally slow times,or as a stand- alone product when sold as gift certificates.And, what could be simpler? Print a piece of paper and it'sdone. Right?Maybe.Coupons can get much more complicated than you might think.What restrictions do you want to impose? Good on certaindays? Certain hours? Is there a minimum purchase required?What about 'rain-checks' if the promoted merchandise istemporarily unavailable?What about the structure of the offer?Buy-one- get-one-free? Percentage discount, flatdollar-amount discount, or special one-time only price?Should the coupon expire?Lots of questions, but how should you go about making all ofthese decisions?Start at the beginning: before you do anything else, decideexactly what you want to accomplish with your offer. Do youwant to increase sales, get new customers, introduce a newproduct or service, use the coupon as a product in and ofitself (as in "gift certificate"), or ??? It is imperativethat you make this determination first because all of theother coupon-related decisions depend on it.When you finally do come up with the parameters of youroffer, be sure that it is reasonable and easy to takeadvantage of. I remember seeing a restaurant coupon for $2off the bill, but there were so many restrictions that Ialmost laughed out loud. You practically had to be anattorney to decipher the offer; it was good during certainhours on certain days of the week, for parties of 4 or more(adults only, kids don't count), meals must meet certainminimums, and so on. It was ludicrous. They apparentlywanted to stimulate business, but I can't imagine thatANYone EVER took advantage of the offer. (It may besignificant to note that the restaurant in question failed.)If you are selling gift certificates, they cannot expire.Someone has given you money for a product or service thatyou have not yet delivered; to allow that to expire isunethical in my opinion, unless you return the money to thepurchaser after the expiration date.Accounting for them, however, can be a problem. A friend ofmine received landscaping gift certificates for severalyears. She accumulated them until she had a big project todo, and the nursery that issued them was mortified that theywere going to have to honor them all at once. If you thinkabout it, though, they got a better deal because they haduse of the money for all of that time, and the buying powerof the money they received has diminished over time; a $100certificate, for example, issued 5 years ago won't buy asmuch today as it would have then. Gift certificates shouldbe carried on your books as a liability. That way, youdon't realize the revenue or take the profit until thecertificates are redeemed.Some people have the feeling that gift certificates are toomuch trouble because of the liability and accounting, but myfeeling is that you should do what's best for your customer,not what's best for you.Coupons and gift certificates are good tools. Use them, butbe smart about it.