If what&’s said about one man&’s trash being another man&’s treasure” is anywhere near the mark, then 58-year-old Stephen Auker, a self-professed “wombler”, is among a growing group of consumers who are taking scavenging to new heights. He&’s part of a brigade that hangs around supermarket car parks and fast food restaurants searching for discarded receipts.

They’re not allowed to take the receipts from bins, so instead they look in bushes, trolley bays and “windy corners”. Sound ridiculous? Maybe, if you weigh the financial benefits against the time involved in obtaining them. But fans of wombling claim it&’s more akin to a philosophy or state of mind. It&’s about tidying up as well as saving money — or raising it for those in need.

The phenomenon has grown in response to the loyalty and price match schemes offered by supermarkets and other retailers. Womblers gather receipts and use these to get money off their shopping. This could be in the form of loyalty points or other freebies — sometimes in the form of food — from retailers.

“Wombling” derives its name from the furry, fictional characters of Wimbledon Common who live in burrows and help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish. 

Auker is a retiree who lives in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and he began in 2010 after he picked up a piece of litter and realised it was an Asda receipt with a barcode on it. The supermarket&’s price promise — known as the Asda Price Guarantee — works by giving customers a voucher for money off their next shopping if their price doesn’t beat rivals by at least 10 per cent. Instead of the supermarket telling them at the till, shoppers must wait three hours before going to the APG website and entering a barcode from their receipt to find out if their shopping was at least 10 per cert cheaper than rivals Tesco, Sainbury&’s, Morrisons or Waitrose. If the shopping turns out otherwise, they can print off a voucher for the difference that can be used on their next shopping, in a store or online.

“After finding the receipt I went to the Asda Price Guarantee page and checked it. I was very surprised to find I had 38 pence as a reward just for picking up a piece of rubbish,” Auker said. 

The receipt must be for a shopping trip where at least eight items were bought. There must also be an intact barcode. One of the hazards of wombling is wet weather, which can cause the barcodes to smudge and run, so experienced womblers will collect receipts and press them between the pages of magazines to dry them out.

The rewards are small — each receipt might only have a few pence in savings — so wombling is not for the time-poor. Said Auker, “You get out of wombling exactly what you put in. For example, yesterday was a very windy day so I sat in a car park for seven hours waiting for the receipts to blow towards me.” By his estimate, he makes up to £200 per month, £2,400 a year. That was roughly 60 per cent of his shopping bill, he said. His largest ever Asda “womble” was a receipt that got him a voucher for £14.48. His largest amount in a month was £225.

Auker now donates a proportion of his wombling to charity and has encouraged other womblers to do the same via a Just Giving page. Early last year he created a Facebook group – it now has almost 5,000 members — to share his wombling tips and help the community grow. He said some users claimed to make as much as £750 a month. 

But it&’s not just Asda car parks that womblers frequent — although these are a most lucrative destination — they are also on the hunt outside the bigger supermarkets in the hope of finding receipts with unclaimed loyalty points. Another wombling hotspot is Farmfoods, a frozen food retailer with 300 stores in the UK, where shoppers can pick up discount vouchers from its website. For example, £2.50 off when you spend £25, five pounds off a £50 purchase and £12 off a £100 bill. Womblers look out for receipts that have been thrown away and then take these into the store, along with a voucher, and claim back the discount that is paid in cash or credit.

KFC, meanwhile, has become a new destination since the launch of its loyalty scheme – the “Colonel Club” – in June last year. Spend over three pounds and get one “chicken stamp” or two stamps for anything over £15. These stamps convert into free chicken, in three tiers of rewards. For example, collect three stamps and get two free hot wings or a small popcorn chicken box. Customers must add stamps to their account within seven days and they must use these rewards within three months.

Charlotte Burns, founder of money-saving blog lottyearns.co.uk, says that wombling has now grown into an online phenomenon. “Supermarkets are competing more than ever for your custom. So now you’ll often find supermarket price matching with competitors or offering points or money off on your next shop on your receipt, as an incentive to get you back in the store. A lot of people don’t bother to cash these in, or don’t even know they are there. Womblers realise they are literally throwing away money, so they scour supermarket car parks, bins and trolleys to collect all the discarded price match receipts for themselves.”

While some retailers are aware of it, they are almost powerless to control it. But Auker warned that supermarkets may try to prevent wombling by keeping their car park litter-free. Retailers’ ultimate power lies in making schemes less attractive to womblers, but he said that the key to successful wombling was discretion. “I personally have never had a sticky situation with wombling in the six years I’ve been doing it. Some people have been challenged but that&’s because they like to brag about money rather than being discreet.” Going through rubbish bins or harassing shoppers for receipts was a no-no, he added. “We never, ever advise anyone to womble inside stores or from bins because that&’s illegal.”