Groupon now in the bargain bin

'Fastest-growing company ever' has seen its value drop 80 per cent.

Last November, Andrew Mason was celebrating. Groupon, the daily deals site he founded and at that point "the fastest-growing company ever", had just raised US$700 million ($848 million) and was being valued at US$13 billion.

Mason had even been given the ultimate Google seal of approval, having recently turned down a US$6 billion offer from the search giant.

A year on, he is fighting to keep his job as the company's share price falls to levels not even Groupon's cost-conscious customers seem to find attractive. Even by the flash-and-burn standards of the internet, it has been a remarkable collapse.

Groupon has lost more than US$10 billion in value over the past year. Independent directors and fellow founders are reportedly at loggerheads, pushing for Mason to go.

Even Mason admits the board is right to be pondering his future. "Here's a news flash: our stock is down about 80 per cent. It would be weird if the board wasn't discussing whether I'm the right guy to do the job," he said last month.

Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester Research, was an early critic of Groupon. "This IPO game isn't about finding value, it's about finding a greater fool who actually believes the valuation is true. Trust me, you will be the fool," she wrote in a blogpost before the share sale.

Academic research seems to suggest it's not just shareholders who are getting burned. Dr V Kumar, executive director of the centre for excellence in brand and customer management at Georgia State University, and his colleague Bharath Rajan studied the impact of daily deal offers on three small local businesses: a restaurant, a car wash service and a beauty salon/spa.

The researchers tracked the businesses for a year and the results, published in MIT Sloan Management Review, were damning. In the first month, all three businesses lost money.

Daily deal sites argue that such losses are to be expected and that they will be made up by repeat business from the new customers brought in by the coupon. But this wasn't the case, according to Kumar's report. Every new customer visiting the restaurant with a coupon resulted in a US$14 decline in profits. For the car wash, the decline was US$17 and for the beauty salon US$39.

Kumar says that, as they are currently structured, daily deals don't work for small businesses. "The retailers are attracting price-sensitive customers who are always looking for a deal. If there isn't a deal on offer, they move on."

Groupon isn't alone in its problems. Its biggest rival, LivingSocial, sacked almost 10 per cent of its staff last month.

The company isn't going anywhere: it has over US$1 billion in cash and makes a profit. But, says Alan Patrick, co-founder of tech consultancy Broadsight, it's clear to everyone now that Groupon is not the new Google. "Real-world coupon businesses are not high-value businesses. Putting Groupon online doesn't make it one.

"It has to source deals, sell the benefits, write copy for coupons etc, for huge numbers of small-player deal providers."

At least the company now knows what would attract new buyers: the best coupon Groupon could offer now is Mason's pink slip.


Deep discount

Groupon's value:

November, 2011: US$13 billion.

This week: US$2.46 billion.


- Observer

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