No big deal after all: High-flying “Daily Deal” companies crash to earth.

Groupon hits the skidsI’ve blogged before about the rapid rise of so-called “daily deal” online coupon companies. But from the get-go, there were nagging questions about the long-term viability of these social couponing programs. One particularly foreboding indication was how few vendors return after trying their first campaign.

… Something about making money (or not) on these deals and whether (or not) couponers would become repeat customers.

A bit more time has gone by since that blog post, and today the news about daily deal sites looks pretty grim. In fact, Groupon, the market leader, has just reported another quarter of poor earnings due to the stagnation of its core business activities.

Groupon also reported that the average revenue per “active” customer (one who has purchased a deal from Groupon within the past 12 months), declined more than 15% … to ~$64 from ~$76.50 a year earlier.

Groupon’s stock price is also way down; it’s now ~$2.75, nearly 90% below its share price when the company went public barely one year ago. Consequently, the company’s market value has shrunk to ~$1.8 billion, compared to ~$13 billion when it went public.

The situation is much the same over at Living Social, Groupon’s most significant competitor. Its part owner, Amazon, just reported a quarterly loss for the previous quarter after it wrote down its investment in Living Social.

What’s the reason for the dismal turn of events? Maybe it’s that the business model for these daily deal programs is … fundamentally flawed?

While at first blush, daily deals seem like a great way for smaller businesses to generate awareness, marketing buzz and attract new customers, it comes at a price: sacrificing the profit margin.

Indeed, the price promotion aspects of the business model are pretty problematic. In the “bad old days,” local and regional merchants used Yellow Pages advertising, perhaps supplemented by the occasional Valpak® coupon mailer.

But typically, Yellow Pages advertising doesn’t have a discounting component. Groupon and other daily deals do … in spades.

Because a daily deal doesn’t “take” until a sufficient number of people avail themselves of the offer, the deal needs to be lucrative enough to attract consumer volume … which is what makes this type of program a challenge for businesses to do over and over again.

And now, new research published by Raymond James & Associates proves the point. This consulting firm surveyed ~115 merchants that had participated in at least one daily deal promotion during fall 2012. It found that ~40% of the merchants would “not likely” run another such promotion over the next 2-3 years.

Why is this? The commission rates on these deals are high, for one thing. But also, merchants found a low incidence of return or repeat customers gained through the promotion. Conclusion: Daily deal customers come for the discount … and leave thereafter.

Other survey findings? How about these:

  • ~32% of the merchants lost money on their daily deal promotion.
  • ~40% feel that daily deal promotions are “less effective” than other forms of marketing.

Rakesh ‘Rocky’ Agrawal, a social media specialist and consultant, is blunt in his assessment of the situation: “I’ve always maintained that this is a hype-driven business built on an unsustainable business model – both for the merchants and for Groupon.”

So what’s the solution for Groupon and other social coupon programs? After all, it now seems clear that many merchants won’t be returning for new campaigns anytime soon. We can see the potential pie shriveling up before our very eyes.

In response, Groupon has begun expanding into a more traditional discount online retail operation (Groupon Goods). In fact, this endeavor now accounts for the bulk of the company’s recent revenue growth.

But there’s absolutely nothing new or extraordinary about this venture, as it just mirrors dozens of other sites that do the same thing.

One thing that does differentiate Groupon from other online merchant sites is its hefty sales force of “live people” interfacing with merchants and businesses – something only social networking and user review website Yelp! comes close to matching. For smaller businesses, the human touch is important when dealing with newfangled marketing concepts.

On the other hand, it’s also a costly differentiation that doesn’t tend to scale well – except with more human bodies. So there’s a palpable concern that Groupon will be unable to deliver these other services profitably compared to more technology-oriented competitors.

Returning to the daily deals component, Groupon and others are also facing the reality that they need to offer merchants a bigger cut of the promotion dollars. They’re also finding it more lucrative to push “perishable inventory” deals (e.g., at restaurants and hotels) where big discounts might make more sense for merchants compared to those for durable products.

All in all, Utpal Dholakia, a professor of management at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and a close observer of the segment, sees no easy answers. “The heyday for daily deals are behind us,” he concludes.

Online coupon deals: Take those “whopping” discounts with a grain of salt.

Online daily deals save you less than you might think.
That "big discount" you think you're getting? Chances are, it's based on inflating the regular price.
In the world of retail, while the way people buy goods and services may be evolving at a rapid clip, it turns out that some aspects have changed nary a bit.

Take online couponing. Groupon and LivingSocial are the two big players in this segment, which enables consumers to take advantage of deep discounts on products or services providing enough people sign up for the offer. They’ve been proliferating in retail markets all over the country.

But think back to the “bad old days” of brick-and-mortar retail. Often, you might encounter a “deep discount” at a grocery store or big box store, only to realize later that the discount was calculated off of an unrealistically high list price for the item.

While not illegal, such practices are certainly deceptive, in that the product was rarely if ever sold at the “standard” price.

Well, guess what? When looking at online coupon deals, we’re now finding the very same practices at work.

Recently, local local services online directory Thumbtack contacted vendors offering daily deals from Groupon or LivingSocial. Vendors were “shopped” in metro markets all across the country that included a variety of services ranging from home cleaning and maid services to interior painting, handyman services and studio photography.

In eight out of ten cases, Thumbtack found that it was quoted a price over the phone that was lower than the advertised “regular” price cited in the supposedly “great” deals being offered.

Two examples:

 On September 19, 2011, Groupon offered two hours of home cleaning services in Phoenix, AZ for $49 … an amount it claimed was 67% off of the “regular” price of $150. When contacted by phone, the non-discounted price for the exact same cleaning services was $80. So the consumer was still getting a discount … but hardly the 67% as breathlessly claimed.

 On August 24, 2011, Groupon offered carpet cleaning services for a 200 sq. ft. area in San Francisco, CA for $45 — purportedly a 78% discount from the regular price of $200. The price quoted over the phone for similar square footage? Just $106. No doubt, Groupon, LivingSocial and their participating vendors realize that one way to make an offer more attractive is to make sure the percentage discount is huge – and thus unlikely to be offered again.

It’s really no different from practices we’ve seen used in retail over many years. But as more consumers become more savvy to the ways of online deals, it’s quite likely that we’ll find fewer people choosing to participate in them based on the “whopping” discounts claimed.

Social couponing: Big idea … but big profits?

Groupon logoThe rise of the Internet has changed the way the couponing business operates. Not only are people logging online to find coupons rather than searching for them in the local paper, so-called “social couponing” has also entered the scene. This is where online coupon offers become active only after a minimum number of registered users sign on to them.

Groupon is probably the best-known of these couponing platforms, although there are others active in the field including MyCityDeal, Half Off Depot, BuyWithMe and LivingSocial. [Interestingly the idea of social couponing originated in the People’s Republic of China.]

The concept, as Groupon does it, is pretty simple. It offers one “Groupon” per day in distinct market segments. If a predetermined specified number of people sign up for the coupon offer, the deal then becomes available to all; otherwise, the offer doesn’t take effect.

Groupon makes its money by getting a percentage of the deal from the participating retailers.

In theory, social couponing reduces the risk for retailers, who can treat the coupons as brand promotion tools in addition to offering discounts or freebies. But research carried out recently by the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University throws a bit of cold water on this hot idea.

The Rice research, which included ~150 businesses, found that the Groupon campaigns were unprofitable ventures for one-third of them. Furthermore, ~40% of the companies studied stated that, based on their experience, they don’t plan to run another social coupon promotion.

The Rice study measured program success based on two criteria: what portion of customers spent more than the coupon amount … and to what degree did customers subsequently make follow-up purchases without the coupon offer. Those companies that reported their campaigns had not been profitable also reported that only ~25% of the coupon redeemers spent more than the face value of the coupon.

Beyond that, fewer than 15% made a subsequent purchase at full price.

In contrast, firms that reported having profitable promotions stated that about half of the coupon redeemers spent more than value of the coupon, and ~30% of them made follow-up purchases at regular prices.

But even some of these firms were wary about conducting another campaign, believing that the Groupon offer did not attract the “right” kind of customers.

What types of offers did well? The Rice study found that foodservice offers performed best in terms of the quantity of offers redeemed. Other categories that scored relatively well were tourism offers, educational services, salons and spas – but each of these drew less than half the response level that restaurants achieved.

Utpal Dholakia, an associate professor of marketing at Rice and leader of the research study, concluded, “There is disillusionment with the extreme price-sensitive nature and transactional orientation of these consumers.” Dr. Dholakia went on to point out that “they are not the relational customers that they had hoped for, or the ones … necessary for their businesses’ long-term success.”

What’s the caveat for businesses thinking about jumping into social couponing? Such a program may well contribute to a surge in business. But many of these new customers will be price-conscious in the extreme, holding a bargain-hunting agenda above everything else.

Hmmm. Just like the real world.