|When Today’s Deal Is Tomorrow’s Regret |
By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
New York Times
March 9, 2012
HOW much is a $150 coupon worth? For Matt Sumell, the cost turned out to be one new relationship, as well as a little bit of pride.
In January 2011, Mr. Sumell bought a $150 coupon for a romantic overnight stay in a hotel from LivingSocial, the daily deal site (a savings of about 50 percent). He planned to use it with a woman he had been dating for five years, until that relationship ended.
But Mr. Sumell, an English teacher and fiction writer from Los Angeles, is not one to throw away money. So 11 months later, with the coupon unused and an expiration date looming, he set aside his better judgment and invited a woman he had been dating for only a month.
“I said to her, ‘Come with me, we’ll take a ride,’ ” Mr. Sumell recalled. “ ‘It’ll be great.’ ”
It was not great.
“The hotel was directly across the street from a Hooters,” he said, “and it was bikers’ week,” meaning the hotel was overrun with growling motorcycles and middle-aged men wearing leather. Ambience aside, the sleepover seemed rushed and uncomfortable. “The whole thing was just really awkward,” he said.
So it goes for those people who lately find their leisure activities dictated less by their own free will than by the opt-in domination of daily deal sites. While the rapid spread of services like Groupon, LivingSocial and Amazon Local has allowed millions to try restaurants or leisure activities they otherwise couldn’t afford (or wouldn’t have known about), it is also compelling some people to spend time doing things they don’t necessarily want to do.
For some, it’s eating dinner in a restaurant they already know they don’t like. For others, it’s taking classes that promise “You can learn to salsa” despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary.
For Karen Eddinger, a real estate agent in Seattle, it meant signing up for a local cooking class even though she hates cooking almost as much as she hates taking classes.
“I really don’t know why I bought it,” she said.
She also recently made her grandson visit the Seattle Children’s Museum for the second time since October not because he liked it, but because she and her ex-husband had unknowingly bought the same Groupon deal. Her daughter and son-in-law have lately attended a number of yoga classes, massages and bad restaurants in an effort to use up their mother’s coupons. (For those without family members willing to help, a secondary market for digital coupons has emerged. Sites like DealsGoRound and CoupRecoup let people sell their unwanted coupons at a discount.)
Coupons are nothing new, and shoppers have long made poor decisions in pursuit of saving pennies. But daily deal sites have raised the stakes in convenience (they arrive via e-mail and are bought with a click), savings (half-off deals to upscale establishments are common) and experiences (Want to hang glide? There’s a Groupon for that).
Hence a new generation is discovering the hidden downsides of couponing. “A deal sometimes feels like a really wonderful thing, like you’ve outsmarted the system and have something special,” said Dan Ariely, the author of “Predictably Irrational,” a book about how a skewed perception of economics can result in poor decisions. “Because of that, you have an extra sense of accomplishment, which you are willing to pay for in terms of time and money.”
But that perspective can mean a bid to save money can quickly devolve into a boondoggle. Lindsay Hall Harrison, a lawyer from Orlando, Fla., bought a $6 Groupon for $12 worth of ice cream from a shop near a beach that she and her husband had visited a couple of times. The problem: the beach was an hour and a half away, and the Harrisons weren’t always in the mood for ice cream by the time they drove there.
“We started making deliberate trips down there just to use up this Groupon,” she said. “It was the principle of the thing.” In the end, she estimated that the couple burned through two to three tanks of gasoline to claim $12 in ice cream, which, she noted, was not particularly great.
Jamie Roo, a marketing director from the Upper West Side, last year found herself eating in a nearby restaurant that she and her husband had long ago decided they didn’t like, because she couldn’t resist a deal from Amazon Local.
“We somehow persuaded ourselves to go back,” she said. Not surprisingly, the deal did not make the food taste any better. “The moral of the story is, don’t go just because it’s a deal.”
The idea that all of one’s leisure-time decisions can be outsourced to daily deal sites is encouraged by the sites themselves. In 2010, Groupon recruited Josh Stevens, a former Census worker from Chicago, to live on nothing but its own deals for a year. The company called Mr. Stevens the Groupawn. Mr. Stevens’s real-life counterparts can be found in Kimberly and Stephen Kuhn, who recently moved to Trinity, Fla., from Miami. Before the move, Ms. Kuhn was a self-described LivingSocial “near-addict,” who would use up to a dozen coupons a week, not to save money, but to decide where to eat.
“In Miami, there are all these great mom-and-pop places you would never know about because they don’t have money to advertise,” said Ms. Kuhn, who gives credit to her local LivingSocial representative (whom she has met) for having her finger on the pulse of the city.
The Kuhns set a one-day record for themselves in June when they realized they had a backlog of coupons to use before they left Miami. “My husband took the day off work and we used seven deals in one day,” all for restaurants, Ms. Kuhn said. “We started at the very tip of north Broward County and worked our way all the way down to South Beach. It was a really great way to say goodbye to the area.”
Thus far, Ms. Kuhn said, she is disappointed with the quality of the deals in Trinity, which tend to feature chain restaurants.
“It’s funny, because I never considered myself a deal addict,” she said. “I’m not a couponer, I don’t do Sunday sales. We really just used it as a tour guide, so we are missing it for sure.”
But that hasn’t stopped her from buying the deals she likes, even if they require some travel. “My husband still works out of Fort Lauderdale, so we still buy those LivingSocials,” she said. “We’ll go back.”