Groupon All Grown Up

From ‘glorified mailing list’ to ‘one-stop-shop’
By Catherine Yang, Epoch Times
October 7, 2013 Updated: November 24, 2013

Groupon Inc. is finally being taken seriously. The company has seen drastic ups and downs over the years, but now that Groupon is moving away from its daily deals model, it just might find stability.

Daily deals made Groupon the fastest growing Web company in 2010. Then in 2011 came its initial public offering (IPO) and consumer, merchant, and investor confidence plummeted when the company’s inner workings were made public.

But more recently, the company has been gaining positive ratings and recognition. Even news of its IPO-related lawsuit arising again had little effect. Its shares (NASDAQ: GRPN) are up 135 percent since Jan. 1.

Dependent on Merchants
The Chicago-based company is largely known as a daily deals site. Merchants opt in to work with Groupon for no upfront fee, and Groupon helps the vendor reach millions of customers—for a 25–50 percent cut after purchase.

The model works better for certain types of businesses more than others. Restaurants were often hit the hardest, because many have low profit margins to begin with, and ended up with losses without the benefit of repeat customers.

For other ventures, such as horse stables, Groupon was a marketing budget they would have never been able to afford. And customers enjoyed seeing deals for activities like rafting, which they may not have paid for otherwise.

At 3 years old in 2011, Groupon had the largest IPO of any U.S. Internet company since Google Inc. Groupon had rejected Google’s $6 billion offer to buy it out the year before, and in November 2011, Groupon’s valuation reached $12.8 billion.

Groupon’s selling point, on the merchant side, is the marketing it provides, but when its financial statements were made public, it showed the company spent nearly 92 percent of revenue 2011 on marketing, an unsustainably high figure.

Groupon was reaching 150 million customers daily and showed tremendous growth—426 percent in a year—but there was concern of the sustainability of its business model.

In 2011 Groupon’s own numbers showed customer return rates for merchants were about 22 percent—defeating the purpose of using Groupon as a marketing tool (repeat customers were low). And a survey from Lightspeed Research showed that 63 percent of Groupons were bought by the merchant’s existing customers.

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requested a restatement to Groupon’s initial filing. Groupon refiled August 2011, and then revised its reported revenue again a month later on an accounting inconsistency. The revenues investors thought they were looking at were suddenly cut in half.

Then came the slew of lawsuits.

Concerns of Groupon’s sustainability became reality, and the company was being sued by consumers and investors alike. All while being publicly slammed by merchants.

In one case, a cafe ended up having to take out a loan just to cover the costs after running a Groupon campaign. Many people bought the cafe’s Groupons, as reported by the New York Times, but it was far too many for the shop to handle. Stories like these popped up throughout last year, with many stores citing bad experiences with Groupon campaigns, most of them restaurants.

There were many complaints and suits filed by consumers regarding expiration dates but the case-turned-class action was eventually rejected. Shareholders then sued, alleging the company had deceived them about its business prospects.

In April 2012, the company’s auditors, Ernst & Young LLP, found “material weakness” in its internal controls. The SEC subsequently launched an investigation into Groupon’s accounting practices.

Much of this was attributed to then-CEO Andrew Mason’s judgment, as he had a reputation for being a bit off-the-wall. A Vanity Fair piece documented a tour to the Groupon headquarters, which included Mason hiding a live pony from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg by keeping it in the freight elevator.

Mason was replaced with Eric Lefkofsky, Groupon’s executive chairman, this February. Lefkofsky became interim CEO until August, when he formally took on the position. During the time, Lefkofsky quelled investors’ concerns, and institutional investors were buying up more shares.

During the subsequent months, Groupon was drama free, but there were still concerns over strategy. Groupon needed to move away from an email-based daily deals with one of its biggest attractions being restaurants deals. Consumers had too many other options in this area.

A One-Stop Shop
Groupon made moves to keep up with the mobile trend, as its second-quarter earnings revealed less than 40 percent of North American transactions came through its traditional method of email.

Groupon’s discount-pushing model made the company little more than a “glorified mailing list,” Mason had told Fast Company. Now the company aims to be “the go-to place for consumers to find just about anything, anywhere, anytime,” General Manager Greg Rudin stated. Whereas the majority of Groupon buyers were a merchant’s existing customers a few years ago, a more recent survey by ForeSee shows 84 percent would not have ever bought from the merchant if not through Groupon.

The company has made a handful of recent acquisitions. Last fall it bought for $20 million, and this fall launched Groupon Reserve, which uses’s technology to let customers make reservations at high-end restaurants with no upfront commitment.

Blink, a last-minute hotel booking application, was bought and rebranded to “Blink by Groupon” to streamline the Groupon Getaways travel business. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, but Blink will continue to operate separately. A week later, Groupon bought SideTour, which lets consumers find odd and interesting local events, connecting experts with small groups of people one at a time.

In early October Groupon appointed four new executives to lead different units of Groupon, including autos services and high-end experiences.

When the investor class action suit was recently brought up again late September, stock prices did fall. But the company’s string of recent positive changes suggests that Groupon has put its messy past behind it.