Let me just say up front that this post is based on the experience of a single restaurant owner and should be taken in that context. However I was quite surprised, yesterday, to hear the individual’s experience with Groupon, after I brought up the group-buying phenomenon. I’ll paraphrase what I was told by the owner.
This particular restaurant, located in the middle of the country, had just opened and needed customers. It also had gone over its construction budget and was short of “marketing” dollars. So it turned to Groupon. Initial promotion suggestions from the restaurant were reportedly rejected by Groupon as being insufficiently aggressive. The final, accepted, promotion was very aggressive, such that the owners feared there might be no margin on these Groupon customers.
I was told that while businesses can specify a minimum threshold of customers, required to honor the offer, they cannot specify a maximum or cap the number of respondents. This created fear that there would be 1,000 takers of this particular deal. It turned out that there were just under 500, according to the restaurant owner.
One one level this is a great result: 500 new customers potentially to spread the word and become repeat business. This was the owner’s precise objective.
I asked if he had tracked these new customers and determined how many repeated. The owner said no. I also asked whether they “got the list,” the email addresses of those taking advantage of the offer. He told me that Groupon wouldn’t give him the list, which I found literally shocking.
The restaurant owner’s experience ultimately turned out fine and the promotion “worked” in terms of getting people in the door. But he also speculated and talked about the experience of smaller service businesses such as hair salons or dentists, which must service customers in a serial manner.
He said that his wife had, as a consumer, taken advantage of one of the Groupon offers in connection with a salon. She called and couldn’t get an appointment until many weeks later — the demand was so great. If there are 300 customers who take advantage and make appointments right away that may suck up an SMB’s time for weeks. Imagine weeks of work with very thin margins.
The restaurant owner complained that “there are things Groupon doesn’t tell you.” He said the restaurant’s website got hit with tons of traffic and their phone was ringing off the hook. “You basically have to become a call center,” he said, after the deal hits. “Most small businesses aren’t prepared for something like this.”
But he did appreciate that Groupon offered “pure performance marketing” as opposed to clicks and even calls, which were more speculative. He obviously didn’t like some of the Groupon policies (i.e., not divulging emails, lack of a cap) and the lack of education or information to prepare for the experience.
Assuming that this story is accurate it seems to me that the “group buying” model as presently constituted is unsustainable. Consumers love these deals but SMBs are going to become increasingly ambivalent about them. They “work” in that they get people in the door in a very direct way. But unless that initial foot traffic is smartly leveraged and there are repeat visitors or great word of mouth the value of that initial frenzy is minimal and debatable.
As more Groupon-like sites seek to gain consumer attention there will be an effort to get deeper and deeper discounts from businesses. As an initial matter that may work, but over time this may backfire and undermine the ability of these sites to get businesses to participate. It’s also largely a one-shot deal. The restaurant owner I spoke to probably wouldn’t go back to Groupon because of the limited margins.
Platforms like Perry Evans’ new Closely represent a similar model but enable the SMB to control the flow of promotions and set their terms.