We live in a Golden Age of Coupons. Every morning when I open my email, I see offers from Gilt City, Daily Candy, Living Social, and Groupon scattered among news briefings and actual correspondence. I signed up for these missives because I love a good deal, but for the most part I delete them unread; I can't forget my mother's folk wisdom: You can go broke buying wholesale.
I guess not everyone's mother told them that: Groupon, the best known of the Internet-discount services, was valued at $30 billion in its June IPO. Intrigued by this ludicrously large sum, I resolved to stop ignoring Groupon's emails and to see what all the fuss was about. Because I'm fitfully prone to extremes, I also decided to test the usefulness of Groupon on a micro scale. For one full week, I spent money on only Groupon deals. Groupon was, effectively, my sole currency.
First I implemented a few ground rules: I limited my spending to $200, a number meant to encapsulate all my non-rent/non-recurring-payment expenses, including food, and to be roughly equivalent to what I spend in a normal week. (I did allow myself a few emergency purchases like a subway pass, toilet paper, etc., and loaded up on groceries beforehand.) I could use only newly purchased Groupons, not stockpiled ones, and my goal was to spend them all within the seven-day period. One of the genius/terrible aspects of Groupon, depending on your perspective, is that people often fail to use them before they expire—resulting in a burgeoning secondary market. I wanted to avoid this particular kind of suckerdom.
The first day was disappointing. For my area (New York City), my options included a dance performance I had no interest in seeing, a guided tour of D.C. or Philadelphia, a Web-based laundry-pickup service, and a box of local coop organic produce, deliverable by mail. I'd been hoping for something indulgent, and Groupon was literally advising me to eat my vegetables.
Yet I went ahead: I spent $20 for $38.98 worth of greens that, when they arrived a few days later, didn't seem all that seasonal. I also decided to go for the laundry service: Like produce, I normally wouldn't consider getting it delivered, but the Groupon deal (this time, $15 for $30 worth of services) tricked me into thinking I was making up for the convenience surcharge. (In fact, as I realized a few days later after bothering to do some basic math, doing my own laundry and going to the supermarket would have been cheaper.)
On day two I took a bye. Groupon offered me yet another show I didn't want to see, a random deli sandwich far from where I work and where I live, and exercise programs that couldn't be completed during my week of Grouponing. (Here I should note that, in the past, I've gotten excellent deals on otherwise pricy yoga studios. Though I suppose coupon-yoga only works for me because I'm not picky about my "practice.")
The following morning I resisted the very, very brief urge to purchase 14 hours of tarot-card instruction to the tune of $50, stared longingly at a helicopter tour of Manhattan that would have exploded my budget, and instead bought a $10 coupon for $20 worth of lunch at a Thai restaurant in a faraway Brooklyn neighborhood. It may seem pathetic, but a midday, sit-down meal requiring more than an hour away from my desk counts as adventurous, and so later that week (you have to wait a day until your purchases are active) I met a freelance friend for a leisurely lunch. The food was average, the restaurant was empty, and any sense of grandeur I might have felt by treating him was spoiled by the moment when I had to root around in my bag for a crumpled coupon, only to have it momentarily rejected by the waiter because we hadn't spent quite enough.
Still, fairly pleased with the novelty of that experience, I met another work-from-home friend a couple of days later for $15 worth of lunch at an upscale noodle place, purchased for a mere $7. When the waiter figured out that we were using a Groupon, he whisked away the specials menu. Ouch. It seems my dignity can be bought for the low, low price of $8.
I also ventured out one day that week with several officemates to a "nearby" coffee shop—a 20-minute walk each way—where I had a Groupon for $8 worth of lunch. My sandwich was fine, but a 20-minute sandwich ought to be a work of near-art (weird that there's all this talk of an obesity crisis). The whole "time is money" concept hadn't occurred to me when I clicked "purchase," and yet after lunch I rushed back to the office full of anxiety that didn't seem worth the savings.
That's the thing about Groupons: It's rare that they are truly geographically convenient—one reason why so many go unused. (The company is slowly rolling out Groupon Now, which lets customers search for and instantly purchase nearby deals.) More often than not, you get a discount from an establishment you've never heard about. Either that, or your options are severely limited. One morning, for instance, roughly halfway through the week, I was delighted to discover an email offering a Groupon to a bar I'd long wanted to try. Maybe Groupon was a better social secretary than I was giving it credit for! The catch, though, was that you could only purchase a charcuterie or fondue plate (hardly torture, I'll admit), and again, the waitress wasn't happy. Looking around the room, I realized why. Two days after the coupon had been sent out, nearly every table held a fondue or meat place. It wasn't going to be a good tip night for her, even if the restaurant was doing better business than usual. I'm pretty sure that any etiquette expert would tell you to tip for the original price, not the discounted one, but I'd also bet that only a small percentage of people actually do so.
Near the end of my Groupon experiment, I totaled up my spending and realized I was nowhere near maxing out my budget. I'd reverted to personality type—careful and practical, more worried about survival than exploration. (All purchasing decisions, not just the discounted ones, are mini personality tests.) But in the name of journalism—and at the behest of my editor, who got mad when I mentioned a cardio-stripping offer that I deleted immediately—I decided to try something I'd never do if not for the discount. I bought a $75 spa deal, which included a 60-minute massage, blowout, and manicure/pedicure, 70 percent off the original unspeakable amount.
Due to various scheduling snafus, I wasn't able to make it to the salon within my allotted week, but I still wanted to see whether there was anything unusual about a Groupon beauty experience. Would they pay less attention to me? Would I have that feeling of unbelonging usually particular to window-shopping at very expensive stores? I didn't call ahead, figuring if they couldn't take me on the spot I'd come back a couple days later. But when I got to the spa—clearly primarily a hair salon trying to branch out with an assist from Groupon—the receptionist smiled, not unkindly, and explained that the first weekend or evening appointment available was … September. Is this because of Groupon, I asked, astonished? "Well, our masseuse is very popu …" she started to say, then simply, "Yes."
Groupon offerings vary from city to city, of course. But the deals in my hometown of Cleveland, which I perused occasionally as a sort of control, as in New York, added up to an odd, and oddly believable, vision of what Americans want to do with our free time—refined, perhaps, through a prism of too many Sex and the City reruns. We want to gorge night after night on affordable Thai fare and to guzzle Merlot at wine bars seemingly more numerous than all the grapes in America, and then to drop hundreds of dollars on removing the dental stains and fleshly dimples that result. We might not know, sitting in our cubicles, that we want these things—but take 50 percent off the sticker price, and suddenly we do.
However it might turn out as a business venture and despite the painful prose of its assembly-line jokes, Groupon is practically, if accidentally, the Tocqueville of the moment in its sweeping generalization about what the American public wants. And, I suppose, in the minor and yet telling choices it forces each day, a service like Groupon holds a mirror up to each individual buyer, too. Or maybe, you know, it's just a pretty good place to get a deal on dinner every once in a while.