How Groupon's success could bring dozens of coupons to your inbox.

Commentary about business and finance.
Jan. 13 2011 5:35 PM

Spawn of Groupon

Coming soon to an inbox near you: a daily deal. Actually, a lot of them.

Update, Jan. 14, 2011: On Jan. 13, after this article was published, the New York Times' DealBook reported that Groupon is moving forward with an initial public offering, and that investment banks advising on the deal think the company might debut with a value of $15 billion. Here, Annie Lowrey surveys the market for group-deal sites and considers whether the Groupon boom might be a Groupon bubble.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. Click image to expand.

In the past few years, millions of Americans—more than 50 million, in fact—have signed up for a "daily deal" or "group coupon" site. It works like this: You give the online company your ZIP code. Once a day, it sends you an e-mail with a deal from a local business, whether a salon or a sushi joint. The discount is usually steep—generally, 50 percent to 90 percent—and the offer generally expires after a day or two. If you decide you want that $20 massage for $10, you pay up, then print your coupon.

The two dominant players in the field are LivingSocial and Groupon—and both are highly successful. Washington-based LivingSocial has more than 16 million members, and Chicago-based Groupon more than 44 million. Plus, both private companies have serious financial backing: LivingSocial just raised $175 million from Amazon, and Groupon turned down a $6 billion buyout offer from Google, instead raising nearly $1 billion from a variety of investors. The companies' success has inevitably kicked up copycats: Groupon's chief executive recently estimated that 500 imitators have popped up since the site got big. That raises a question: Is this the start of a group-deal boom or a group-deal bubble? Or is it something else entirely?

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To understand the phenomenon, let's first survey the competitive landscape. LivingSocial and Groupon have at least a dozen direct competitors—big sites that serve a number of neighborhoods or cities, all looking to get a piece of the $133 billion local businesses spend each year on advertising. There is BuyWithMe, currently serving 26 markets with coupons offering discounts of 50 percent to 90 percent. It is backed by venture-capital heavies Bain Capital Ventures and Matrix Partners. Other big players in the group-coupon field include TownHog (44 U.S. markets, backed by hedge fund D.E. Shaw, among others), Eversave, KGBDeals, and Mamapedia's Sweet Deals.

But the runners-up to LivingSocial and Groupon are distant runners-up. According to December site-visit data compiled by Experian Hitwise, a research and analysis firm, the two biggest sites account for 92 percent of the Web traffic in the "group buying" sector. The third-best-trafficked site, Mamapedia's Sweet Deals, clocks in at just 1.4 percent.

Beyond the national group-coupon sites, there are hundreds of others based in and aimed at local markets: New York City's Scoop St., Virginia's ScoopCoups, Georgia's SavvyLikeMe, the south's GetGrouby, Washington's Deals for Deeds, Seattle's Wrazz, and Phoenix's SnagAndSave, to give just a quick scan of the market. Given that the sites make money by getting more customers to buy more coupons, most are planning regional or even national expansions. And the group-coupon boom extends further still, with piggybacking businesses showing up in the last year or so as well. There are so many daily deals that now there are sites to aggregate the daily deals: YipIt, 8 Coupons, and DealRadar, for instance. And then there are sites to helpbusinesses set up their own group coupons—like the mouthfuls Adility, Wantsa, and Ponkle.

So what differentiates all the group-coupon competitors—the LivingSocial from the Wrazz? To be honest, not much. The Groupon copycats copycat closely. Some sites, like Deals for Deeds, give a portion of sales to charity. Some focus on certain types of customers or products—deals for parents of young kids, or for restaurants and bars, for instance. But all follow the same business model: Local business offers serious discounts to local residents; group coupon site takes a cut. Strangely, they even all look the same, sometimes down to the page design and font.

Taken together, such sites have seen tremendous growth in the past year, despite recession-driven misery in consumer spending and the sluggishness of the advertising market. Experian Hitwise estimates that traffic to group coupon sites grew 610 percent between August 2009 and August 2010. Sales metrics are a bit harder to come by, as the companies are private. But estimates put Groupon's 2010 revenues at $500 million and LivingSocial's revenues at $200 million or so (though both of those numbers should be taken with a heaping pinch of salt). Add in the smaller competitors, and the sector's revenues are more than $750 million. That number is expected to top $1 billion in 2011.

Group coupons are nothing but a souped-up iteration of a very old phenomenon: Plain old coupons date back to the 19th century, if not earlier. That raises the question of what comes next. Will Groupon and LivingSocial prove to be category killers, squashing those 500 little competitors with their wittily written ad copy and awesome deals? Will dozens of new competitors proliferate? Will fierce competition among Groupon, LivingSocial, and their rivals thin margins for all the group coupon sites, forcing some out of business? Will a new form of local or social advertising, perhaps one backed by Google or Facebook, come in and blow all of them out of the water?