Does the Groupon model lead tourism businesses racing to the bottom?


Posted by Stephen Joyce Canada on 14 January 2011

In a recent announcement by Groupon, after raising almost a $1 billion in funding, CEO Andrew Mason said “we will continue on our mission to change the way people shop locally and serve the world’s local businesses”.

But is Groupon, and other group discount sites, changing the way people shop for the better or doing it at the expense of small business?


There is no doubt that the Groupon business model has been a tremendous success, you just have to look at the amount of money they’ve made and how quickly they’ve grown to realize they are on to something big.

The growth has been a result of two important factors:

  • An economy that has pushed consumers (especially those in the US) into a mindset of extreme deal seeking.
  • Small businesses desperate to generate revenue at whatever cost.

But are there enough small businesses to make this model survive? In a word… yes.

When you consider that, on average, about 80% of businesses in the U.S. alone are small businesses with less than ten employees, there are a lot of potential customers to keep the likes of Groupon and other deal sites churning out the revenue for many years to come.

But the bigger question is whether or not these deal sites are really doing anyone any favours.

Part of my issue with group deal sites is not specifically the model but the hype and lack of clear understanding of the costs associated with these advertising models.

For many small tour and activity businesses, where the owner of the business does not necessarily have a business background, the seduction of acquiring hundreds of new customers without investing any upfront cash can seem too good to be true.

But, frankly, it is too good to be true and the downstream costs for a small business, once all the numbers are crunched, are perhaps not what a business owner might have expected.

You don’t have to look very far on the web to find stories of disgruntled retailers, spa owners, restaurateurs, and even photographers who have been stung by a Groupon promotion. What seems to be a common theme across all of these stories, however, is the lack of understanding of the true costs of running a group buy promotion and the impact it has on cash flow and future revenue.

Let’s take a look at the example of  a sightseeing tour as way of determining the costs of running a Groupon campaign for this particular business type.

  • A local sightseeing company with a 15-passenger van decided to try and attract new business by offering 50% off its $140 tour.
  • Groupon sold a very modest 250 coupons.
  • In this case, Groupon took 50% plus credit card costs as commission, so at the end of the day, the operator received $8,312.50 for $35,000 worth of tours and Groupon received $9,187.50.

Not bad, considering Groupon doesn’t have to handle fulfilment or customer service.

Group buying sites have suggested that the money spent on acquiring new customers should be looked at as advertising and not necessarily as the cost of sales.

For a small business whose profit margin is on average 5%, an advertising campaign that costs, in this example, $27,000 and brings in 250 new customers is not sustainable when you consider that locals (the primary consumers of group deals) are less likely to re-use a tourism based product or service again.

The other dilemma facing tourism related businesses is that there is little or no opportunity for upgrading or upselling their product. In most cases, the customer is only going to spend what the value of the coupon, so the business loses out on the up-sell potential.

Think about this for a moment, at 5%, this operator would have to sell $540,000 worth of tours to cover the cost of this one “advertising” campaign. This works out to about 3,857 full paying customers to subsidize 250 deal seekers.

Sobering numbers for a small business owner who has to spend his or her days trying to provide the best possible experience for their customers and pay the bills at the same time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, group buying sites have worked well for many types of businesses, I just think that before a business, especially a small tourism business, chooses to execute a group deal, they must look beyond the hype, do their research, and crunch the numbers. There is no such thing as quick cheap cash.

By participating in a group buy promotion a business is essentially extending credit to hundreds or thousands of customers for which they are now liable, at least until the coupons expire.

In the previous example, the company is adding $8,312.50 in revenue but they are also adding $35,000 in short-term liabilities for tours not yet delivered for the life of the coupon, that would give any accountant a mild heart attack.

The other side of this equation is the consumer and the affect that group sales sites are having on the perception of value of local businesses. Consumers don’t know the individual business’ costs or how much revenue they are making from each customer.

What many consumers will do is assume that you’ve built in enough mark-up to make the deal worthwhile because why on Earth would you run a deal like that otherwise?

Over time, this has the effect of eroding the perceived value of the service being provided and the service runs the risk of becoming, GASP, a commodity. No one wants their service to become a commodity.

Patrick Lefler through CustomerThink:

“The risk here is that profitable customers become conditioned to wait for sales and discounts–reluctant to ever pay full price again.”

In a segment dominated by small businesses, the in-destination tour and activities segment is an excellent target market to advertise on group buying sites like Groupon.

Considering, however, that over 85% of these businesses don’t distribute their products through sites like Expedia and Viator because they consider 20-30% commissions to be too high, it seems ironic to me that they would be willing to jump on a model that charges an effective commission of 75%!


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