It's called "wombling" and it's a real thing, apparently, so we sent a couple interns out to try it.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In today's age of insatiable austerity, it can sometimes be a struggle to find ways of saving money. Other than having a store-bought, pre-made sandwich for lunch and dinner and staying indoors every weekend to watch your life pass you slowly by, there isn't a great deal you can do. So thank God for wombling, a new and inventive way of saving those precious pennies.
Named after those fictional trash-collecting furry animals who spawned a famous UK kids' franchise, wombling is a new trend of money-saving in which you basically hang about in supermarket and fast food restaurant parking lots and look for discarded receipts. Due to the high number of price guarantee and loyalty schemes available these days, many receipts will often have barcodes that you can scan and save money on your next shop with.
Fifty-eight-year-old retiree Stephen Auker, from Keighley, west Yorkshire, started the trend and he reckons he makes up to £200 [$289] a month, or £2,400 [$3,500] a year by scanning the codes off other people's detritus. And he's not just some lone money-saving maverick either: He's started a Facebook group that has over 5,000 followers.
Keen to get in on this action, we sent two of our interns out on a wombling trip of their own, to see if they too can partake in the glory of "saving money by picking up old receipts in parking lots."
When braving the cold sharp sun of a Wednesday morning to go and pick up other people's discarded receipts for nothing, a few things travel through your mind. How did it get to this stage? What is my life saying? And most importantly, how can I go around picking up other people's discarded receipts for nothing without anyone actually seeing my face?
But there was no time for such self-conscious thoughts; I needed action. I began scouring the floor on the local high street, in every crack and crevice on the side of the road, nonchalantly whistling like a Looney Tunes character every time someone came near me or made anything resembling eye contact. I found two brown Tesco receipts, so instantly my insecurities were paying dividends.
I moved further away, toward a train station. According to the honorable womble code and actual plain old UK law, it is illegal to hassle customers for receipts or look inside trash cans in or outside stores. But goddammit, I was desperate. I darted into a Sainsbury's Local and eyed up a garbage full of sweet, delicious receipts, casually tossed away near the self-service checkouts as if they were nothing. Do these people not realize what a goldmine they are sitting on? I made a dart for one of the trash cans by the entrance but a piercing look from a cashier stopped me dead in my pathetic paper-chasing tracks. I backed away. I'm as keen to save pennies as the next wombler, but I'm not willing to risk my life. Or, well. Not life, but one of the deeper remaining shreds of my pride.
Dejected, I exited the store doing that weird kind of half-smile at the cashiers like I was just really happy to have visited this particular Sainsbury's Local even though I didn't actually buy anything and my behavior was close to "having a bad trip on acid" levels of paranoia. But then it struck me: the parking lots. Of course. Had I not paid attention to the great womble prophet Stephen Auker at all? I knew there was a Sainsbury's and Matalan parking lot around the back of a shopping mall nearby so I dived two-footed into its paper-filled bosom.
And what a bosom! The suckers out there not in the know about wombling obviously felt like a parking lot was the best place to dump their scrunched-up gold, and so I really went to town here. But then I saw my colleague had the same idea as me in terms of location and it suddenly became a Supermarket Sweep–esque dash around the place to pick up as many sheets as possible. I actually managed to get quite a few but—though they looked impressively lengthy. Most were from the stores Matalan and Iceland, which just seem to enjoy having long receipts with not much penny-saving action going on in them. After weighing up what I'd got online from various stores, I'd reckoned I'd saved just over 45 cents in total. But for an hour's work in this current climate, not too shabby at all!
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After watching a very tense YouTube video from wombling pioneer Stephen Auker titled, "Tesco manager approaches me when I'm wombling (E21)," I was rather apprehensive about picking up receipts in close proximity to large corporations. Especially as the first stop on my wombling adventure was a Tesco Express, a notorious death trap for womblers. As I braved the store's interior, sadly the freshly polished linoleum floor showed no signs of forgotten receipts. They were all stuffed into small black boxes underneath the self-service registers, which are impossible to reach without security seeing. A clever trick. Obviously they have had trouble with womblers before.
After a disappointing start, I decided to venture out to a larger supermarket, preferably one with a parking lot like those I had seen in Stephen's videos. On my way to the bus stop I stumbled across not one, but TWO scrunched-up Tesco Express receipts. Quickly I looked around and checked for any onlookers. I placed them in my pocket. Success.
When I finally got to a big Sainsbury's, it was pretty much the same story inside: The floors were spotless, not a receipt to be found. I began to walk out of the main doors, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted another wombler. Slowly, the supermarket morphed into an episode of Blue Planet—"We now see the two womblers meeting for the first time in their natural habitat, and fighting over a receipt to the death." I could tell the man was a wombler because he was rummaging through a line of stationed shopping carts with a '£3 off your next shop' coupon in his hand. Annoyingly that coupon was the only good piece of wombler meat in the area and my wombler nemesis had already claimed it. But then in an unforeseen twist of events, like a fool, the man dropped the coupon back onto the trolley and I was poised to take back what was rightfully mine.
From then on the game changed. I walked out into the Sainsbury's parking lot and knew I was playing with the big boys. Running through lines of cars, eyes to the ground, I looked out for my next kill—it's surprising how many pieces of tissue can have the appearance of a receipt. Top tip: Follow the wind. It will lead you to piles of unwanted receipts that have been swept behind bins and large metal fences, trapped, screaming to get out. I picked up another three receipts from behind the parking lot fence and called it a day.
My wombling adventure was over now and I was ready to bask in the glory of my success. Disappointingly, I don't know why, but there is something incredibly unsatisfying about making it rain with a handful of muddy receipts. All in all, I'd managed to save a breathtaking 32 cents. Was it worth it? Was the thrill of the chase worth it? Was clambering to grab the discarded coupons and receipts of others worth it? For 32 cents? Do you even need me to answer that question?
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