The Downside of Groupon

I have friends who love Groupon, and buy the coupons and discounts avidly. Personally, I’m leery of getting anything I’m not absolutely, positively sure I’ll use. I’ve used Goldstar and Artsopolis for performing arts, since I like the surprise of seeing a new show at a venue I may or may not have experienced before, and I get to pick the date and time of my choice. But a massage from a place I don’t know, or classes I don’t know will work for my kids, meh.

I did try out Groupon a few times. We bought 4 discounted tickets to Downtown Ice in the Circle of Palms so we could all go ice skating together as a family, and that was fun. This Halloween, while Kelly was a Brownie sleepover, I used half price Groupons so the rest of the family could run through the delightfully cheesy Alien Extreme experience, to which we wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. And a few months ago, I picked up a Groupon for $20-for-$10 at Smoke Eaters, a place we hadn’t visited in years, and which we ended up revisiting after our Groupon use.

So then, when I saw a Groupon to get a car detail, I thought I’d splurge and finally get my Toyota cleaned after its 4 years of hard use as a child receptacle and homeschool bus. I only rarely get a car detail, though I’m well aware of its benefits. Way back in another life, I worked briefly for the used car department of a major auto dealership. All the used cars got a full detail, and it did wonders for their marketability. A car that had come in smelling horribly and fully begrimed inside and out was transformed into near-new within a few hours.

It’s not cheap, though theoretically, you can do it yourself in a few hours with a steam cleaner and a few extra supplies you can find at a local auto supply shop. But I don’t even wash my own car, much less set aside 4-5 hours to scrub away at every nook and cranny and do a full waxing. The last time I splurged for a detail, I only paid for the interior detail, which cost $125 at the local car wash. So even for such a detail, the $85 Groupon for a “$225 value” looked to be worthwhile, and I bought it.

Two weeks after I bought it, I called for an appointment, hoping to get my car spick and span before we planned to go visit some friends in Walnut Creek the next weekend. To my surprise, and horror, I was told the very first appointment that was available was 6 weeks later, on December 20. I was appalled at my mistake in purchasing the Groupon. At the car wash, I could get a detail by just stopping in. Here I’d have to wait 6 weeks!? My life is hectic and packed with activities that rush onto my calendar all the time, how could I possibly know if I’d still be free on December 20? As it was, within a few weeks, my December 20 was booked with another event, and I had to reschedule again, this time for January 6. Nine weeks in order to use my purchase? I don’t like that at all. I never book hairstylists or restaurants who tell me their only appointments are weeks in advance. I loathe Comic Con because of the necessity of having to book everything a year in advance. And here I was with a non-refundable purchase for a service I wouldn’t ordinarily have bought, and I was on the hook for leaving that day so far in advance free and clear.

By the time Car Detail Day finally came around, I was way too ramped up about it. I had never heard of this auto detailer before; would they still be there by the time I got there? Would they really let me use my Groupon, or tell me I need to reschedule once again? To my relief, when I arrived, they had me in their calendar. The shop was pleasant, as was the staff diligently toiling away at two other cars, which looked very shiny and clean. In a little over 4 hours, my car was sparkling: the windows de-gunged, every cranny swiped clean, the upholstery and mats steam-cleaned, and the outside not only washed, but also polished with a protective coating to protect the paint underneath. That same level of service would have cost $300 at my local car wash, if not more, so for $85 it was a really, really good deal.

I expressed my delight at the work, but also told the business I wouldn’t be able to deal with another 9-week wait, even though their regular prices are more than competitive. Apparently, long waits are a common side-effect of a Groupon promotion. The pro who had helped me explained that they’d done the Groupon promotion to put the word out about their services, and it had more than exceeded their expectations. In the 3 days they’d had the deal up, they’d sold more than 750 Groupons, and they were now booked solid into April. Looking at Yelp, it’s clear that they’ve received a lot of reviews from people who used their Groupons to go there, so clearly many more people know about their business and are talking about it than would have ever been the case otherwise. He offered me the same amazing price for the same service once again if I came back after April, but honestly, I don’t know.

But I value being in control of my own schedule, and I’m not that hard-core of a bargain hunter. After this, I will never buy a Groupon that requires a booking. There’s very few services or activities I’m willing to wait months for, and I appreciate someplace that lets me just drop in or make an appointment at my convenience, not theirs. Should I desire another car detail, I might call around rather than just dropping in at the car wash, now that I know independent services may offer more for less. But I’ll also book at a business that can get me in quickly, rather than one that is overwhelmed by its own promotion.

So is it worthwhile for a business to use Groupon? I wish this one had perhaps limited its number of offerings more, and/or staggered them in different stages, but I don’t know the logistics and cost involved for a business in setting up a Groupon. I prefer finding new businesses at charity auctions, where the business gets a full tax-deduction and the charity gets money, but I’ll admit the audience is far smaller. And we’re so saturated with advertising everywhere and anywhere, I don’t think local advertising is at all as effective. There is something to be said for getting a potential customer to walk in your door and try you out, but if they have to wait in a long line to do so, you probably lose out on a lot of people like me. And my favorite local businesses are already working hard to keep my loyalty, with frequent promotions, discounts, and exclusive services tailored to me.

So, hopefully, the Groupon promotion will work out for the local auto detailer, and he’ll receive lots of return business from at least some of the customers who had their cars detailed, and understood the value of his service. But I find the Groupon crowd effect unpleasant. Good luck, Groupon groupies, but I’d rather pay more to be somewhere else than where you’re at.


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