Groupon: When will the misery stop for everyone?

Online coupons often end up biting the business that uses them.

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While some analysts are betting against Groupon, it has surged in popularity around the world. Here is the CEO of the Malaysian unit at an event in 2011.

Online coupons often end up biting the business that uses them.

Groupon's days could be numbered, according to at least one financial analyst. The investors (stockholders) who provide the company's financing, as well as regulators and Wall Street analysts, are all catching onto Groupon's dubious premise. Groupon claims to be a marketing company, but in fact it mainly provides short-term, unsecured, sub-prime loans to small merchants in exchange for what some of us regard as exorbitant fees and interest.

Unsecured because Groupon does no risk assessment on its borrowers (the mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses who sign up). In other words, if the corner burger bar goes out of business tomorrow, having first slurped up the starkly discounted but lump-sum advance payment for a thousand or so Groupons, Groupon is on the hook to refund the deal's purchasers.

And since, virtually by definition, some of the businesses that sign up for Groupon promotions may tend to be verging on desperation, Groupon has a huge liability issue with these refunds. At the very least, the exposure should be noted in its public statements, now that it's a publicly traded company.

But, no, Groupon has continued to pretend that the problem doesn't exist and buries these liabilities deep inside its murky financial statements. On the other hand, it's quick to book the entire value of a daily deal as income.

Don't take my word for it. A securities analyst named Rocky Agrawal did the math. It's not pretty.

Agrawal argues that Groupon is actually a "receivables factoring business." He, along with several other Wall Street watchers, has predicted that Groupon's stock price ($13.55 at the close of business on NASDAQ on Tuesday, April 10) will sink into the single digits very soon.

Can't happen too soon for my taste. I've written before about my concerns with the whole phenomenon of online coupons distracting businesses from doing what is needed to attract repeat customers and of customers chasing after "a deal" rather than finding and supporting quality local businesses. I've been hearing regularly from merchants who thought they could withstand a modest Groupon promotion, but there doesn't seem to be any such thing as far as I can tell. Instead, the merchants have found it poison.

Here's a suggestion, from one of my previous stories, of an alternate approach for restaurant owners in particular:

Build a mailing list to track your customers, treat them like royalty when they visit, add back-of-house staff so the chef can spend time with the guests, or front-of-house staff so servers can take the time to cosset the guests. Do more for your existing customers, and convert them into ambassadors. Think like Nordstrom, think like Canlis.

And all you would-be enlightened shoppers out there, scouring the Internet for bargains and coupons and deals, you're buying arsenic and feeding it to the very business owners you claim to support. And then you have the nerve to go on Yelp and complain. For shame, for shame!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).