LivingSocial, Groupon and the rest of the group-buying massive have led the charge on some hundreds of millions of dollars of spending. If anything, they came along at the best possible time, pumping a volume of fresh dollars into businesses small and large, a win-win situation for customer and business alike.
Sadly, in some cases quantity saps quality, and sheer potential business for both the group-dealer and the business is far too attractive than admitting that one might simply not have the means to take on so much business.
I am an avid group-buyer - probably a few a month, some for gifts, some for me, for things ranging from custom shirts to cleaning to massages. I've seen the full gamut of what's on offer, and for the most part I think it's a good thing. However, recently I have experienced horrors surrounding both the quantity of orders hitting a business and how it's become somewhat impossible, it seems, for these sites to monitor that which they take in
One cleaner simply never turned up, while another insisted I had never made the appointment - one salon went out of business, and at least a few restaurants have deliberately treated group-buyers with disdain (embarrassingly, one for a party of four tipping 25% a head). Gap, when I went to shop at their store with the much-lauded Groupon coupon, had removed their usually-bountiful sale stock, replacing it with RRP jeans that meant there was no longer a discount. FTD, in a classless and brutal move, baited-and-switched customers into a special page for them to use their coupon on - at higher-than-full price.
It begins to make me question where this currently booming industry is going - and what it means for the average customer. Businesses are misinterpreting their existence as a means of getting a quick-fix profit, versus creating long-term customers. That first experience should be perfect - the very core of what these sites should be about. One time, in an email conversation with Andrew Mason, he remarked that these deals should be "too good to be true," which is why the business has taken off.
However, many businesses, with the ease of getting one of these deals, have forgotten that it's about creating new customers. If they can't do this, the Groupon is meaningless - and frankly, every single new customer should be treated like a potential lifer. If you're going to willingly bring hundreds of new faces to your website or door, then you should greet them with open arms, in the hopes that they still shop there later.
For example, Lush, a shop for natural soap and cosmetics, is one that I've shopped at for literally ten years. Why? Well, partly because they've kept doing what they do very well - their product has steadily improved without losing the original moxy that made them good. No, what makes me keep coming back is both a consistency and individuality. Each store I have been to - from Portobello Road in London to 34th Street in New York - smells great, has similar stock, but seems to retain a relatively individual interpretation of the Lush catalogue. Each person I talk to over the years knows and uses the products, and frankly it astonishes me that they're able to keep a combination of product out that still creates a heady yet pleasant aroma throughout.
Love-letters to soap aside, my point is that a great shop over the years can and will win over the most ardent cynic. People stick with shops because of necessity, sure, but will regularly (and more bountifully) spend at places that give a replicable and memorable experience, with people that care that you get what you want out of it. With any luck, the legions of badly-catered-to customers will rise up against the truly awful companies and only the perfect will survive - or maybe the goodness will only be amplified by a continuing clut of high-churn corporations. Only time will tell.