19 March 2011

Half-off overload - let's not kill a good thing please

No one can say that Groupon hasn't been a wildly successful venture and as a Chicago-based company I'm super happy for them and it sheds more light on some of the great, creative thinking that comes out of our region.

Of course, where there's huge success follows all the copycats and knock-offs.

One could argue that Groupon already was a knock-off from restaurant.com or from a lot of local, extremely local radio stations who used to run the 50-70% off gift certificate programs on Saturday mornings and that would be fair.  In fact, anyone who has bought an Entertainment book in the last 20+ years knows that deals can be found everywhere.

But nothing has taken a foothold more quickly than Groupon.  Beyond the billions of dollars being thrown at them from Google and others, they probably get a VC offer once a week that could be enough money to feed Haiti for 5 years or longer.

They've definitely had their missteps and this past week at SXSW one of their clients (Uber) decided to air some of those grievances on a panel.  Interestingly enough there were several Groupon staffers in the audience who took exception to this and addressed some of the issues, in fact, admitting that they've likely grown faster than their operations can handle.

However the latest issues I've noticed aren't with Groupon itself.  It's with the hyper-aggressive sales forces that Groupon, Living Social, Yelp, OpenTable and soon to be Facebook, etc. have been hiring.  They are out in huge numbers as commissioned sales folks tend to be.  As admitted at the SXSW panel, in fact, the sales model and volumes are growing faster than they can grow the operations side which is causing major issues.

My biggest fear though is that there are businesses who really like this idea and are jumping on board left and right.  Good for consumers, however, when these businesses sign deals with ALL of the services as a user/consumer/target I'm getting multiple deals, frequently within a two day period for the same store/restaurant/service.  From a marketing plan stance, this isn't very smart and I'm realizing that the "sellers" aren't figuring this out and trying to control it.  It's a runaway boulder running down the hill.

Not only are the deals coming in successive days, they frequently aren't the same, most likely driven by the revenue share/service fee model for each company.  Again, as an end user this is sending a mixed message to me.  So I can get $50 of food for $25 today, but tomorrow I can only get $30 for $15??  Sure, EITHER option is nice during this economy but it starts cheapening the offer and muddying the message that the "seller" likely wants to its patrons both existing and new.

So what set me off on this rant?  Two specific events:
  • The fact that I got an offer for Botox treatments (same vendor) from Groupon and Living Social a day apart.  I guess at almost 45, I'm becoming the target market but it irritated me enough and,
  • One of our favorite restaurants, Claddagh having multiple different deals across THREE of these sites within 4 days.  Upon cashing one of these in the waiter humorously said "Well, I see we have a Groupon deal here".  I can't imagine the glut of these that the staffs are seeing.  Again, it's a good thing as it drives business but it could also be a bad thing for staff who might get screwed on tips by those cheap-asses out there.
So where does this leave us?  I'm not sure but given that the various services will not work together like an online publisher to space out the offers across the various networks (they are in competition and won't play nice) I think it's really important for businesses drinking the Kool-Aid to manage their own marketing plans AS WELL AS trying out only ONE of the services first to see the revenue/operating profit impact on their business.

Deep discounts are great for foot traffic but with 2000 50% off coupons sold on Groupon and 1500 40% off on Living Social and so on, any decent level of conversion could hit a business hard in the pocketbook until the true level of repeat triers can be validated.  Meaning, the Groupon got them in the door the first time, do they come back without a Groupon the next time OR were all the Groupons already bought by existing customers?  If you cannabilize your existing revenue stream without a fairly decent uptick in NEW revenue it's ultimately a bad deal.  See Navy Pier issue from December 2010.

Usually it's buyer beware, but this time around I truly feel it's seller beware!

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