CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Think of it as the 21st century version of clipping coupons. Groupon, a website that sets up discount shopping deals, has boomed in these penny-pinching times. In only two years, it has expanded to 90 U.S. cities and gathered 13 million subscribers.
For the most part, Groupon's deals feature small businesses, from restaurants and spas to specialty stores and dance schools. There's no question it's a hit with customers, who get to try out a product or service for half or more off the regular price. Because a deal can be activated only if a certain number of people sign up, shoppers are encouraged to forward the offer to friends and family -- increasing Groupon's reach.
Groupon definitely pays off for bargain hunters. But is it a good deal for businesses? In many cases, yes. Groupon says its own surveys show 95% of its business partners would sign up again. For new, not-yet-established businesses, it's an easy way to get exposure to a huge network of potential customers.
But a recent independent study found there are potential downsides as well. Utpal Dholakia, associate professor of marketing at Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, surveyed 150 businesses that had signed up with Groupon in 19 different cities. About 40% said they would not do it again.
"The businesses seemed to fall into two camps," he says. "Some were absolutely thrilled with the success of their promotion. Others had a terrible experience." Groupon promotions were profitable for about two-thirds of respondents -- one-third actually lost money on their deal.
So what makes for a successful social-promotion effort? "For the most part, it comes down to expectations and preparation," Dholakia says. Owners who lay the groundwork for a rush of customers do well, while those who don't prepare their employees adequately can face a backlash.
Dholakia decided to study the Groupon phenomenon after a disappointing experience with a restaurant he visited regularly in Houston. While getting a table there was usually no problem, he was surprised to find an hour wait one night; he soon learned the restaurant had been featured on Groupon, bringing in a flood of first-time diners.
"The service was terrible, the waitstaff looked unhappy and they were out of the specials," Dholakia says. The experience left him wondering how many other full-paying regulars were being turned off by the crowd of bargain-hunters.
Groupon's success in drawing subscribers can also be the biggest challenge for the businesses it features. Not everyone is equipped to handle hundreds of new reservations. One business owner told Dholakia about a receptionist who couldn't handle the deluge of phone calls and ended up in tears.
If you want to impress new visitors while keeping your existing customers, you have to get your employees on board. All front-line
workers must be adequately trained
to handle unusually large crowds; you should also
have some fill-in help ready
if necessary. You should also have procedures in place to
prevent anyone from re-using coupons
(yes, people try).
While a Groupon crowd can increase your staff's take-home pay by bringing in more tips than usual, it doesn't always lead to a windfall. "A lot of customers who take advantage of these promotions are extremely price sensitive," Dholakia says. In restaurants, servers may find themselves working harder than ever for minimal tips.
So how can you make sure Groupon pays off for your business? First off,
consider whether it's a good fit
for your needs. Groupon works best for new businesses without an established customer base; it gets people in the door who will hopefully turn into repeat customers.
You should also
think carefully about what you offer
. Rather than giving a discount on a customer's total bill, consider offering
a price cut on a specific product or service that is underutilized
(such as weekday evening classes at a cooking school or less popular spa treatments). Then find ways to upsell other services once you've got those newcomers in the door.
Groupon has already inspired other discount programs, such as
, and thousands of businesses are on its wait list to be featured. A blurb on Groupon is enough to bring in throngs of customers despite the uncertain economy.
But you should only sign up if you've thought through how and why you're doing it. Otherwise those bargain hunters will move on to their next offer and leave your business behind.
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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook and writes for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago and other national magazines.