Evaluating the cost of online coupon strategies

(This post is not related to investing)

I ran across an interesting article by Jay Goltz for New York Times' You're the Boss blog. It covers the emerging online coupon marketing channel and the author suggests that such schemes be considered as an advertising strategy rather than a sales strategy. The author covers Groupon but I like to generalize and think about his comments as they apply to any of the emerging coupon internet services. I'm only excerpting a small portion and leaving out some key assumptions so read the full article if you are interested in this topic. (I bolded some items I thought were important in the quote below.)

For those of you not familiar with Groupon, the company partners with local businesses to send a daily coupon e-blast to its members. The members who buy the coupon get 50 to 70 percent off on a product or service, and Groupon splits the proceeds with the retailer — usually leaving the retailer with about 20 to 25 cents on the dollar of retail value.

As a retailer who has used Groupon — as well as traditional advertising — to build my business, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Is Groupon the worst marketing ever? Or is it the best marketing ever? Probably both. One thing is for sure: Groupon is a beast.

What else would you call something that can deliver 2,000 customers to your store? It’s a beast that can propel your business or smother it. It depends on your business. It also depends on you. Here are some key factors:

The first is the type of business you have. How many potential customers in your area don’t know about you? Do you have excess capacity? Can you handle a surge?

The second factor is about branding. Do you believe that by giving out a large discount you risk damaging your brand? It is a judgment call. I am sure that it is a bad idea in some cases.

And then there is the math, which may be the most important factor. I have seen it attempted many times — but if it is not done properly, it can result in very misleading conclusions.

Groupon is advertising. If you don’t need or believe in advertising, there is no reason to look at this. It costs money. Instead of writing a check for an ad, you are choosing to lose money on sales. This can wreak havoc on the brain cells of a good retailer who is always watching profit margins. It can feel wrong, especially when the coupon customers don’t spend more than the amount of the coupon.


There are eight key calculations you need to consider to determine whether this is a better advertising vehicle than something else you may already be doing:

1. Your incremental cost of sales — that is, the actual cost percentage for a new customer. If you are giving boat tours and have empty seats, your incremental costs for an additional customer are next to nothing. If you are selling clothes, your incremental costs might be 50 percent of the sale price. Food might be 40 percent. In any case, don’t include fixed costs that you would be incurring any way.

2. The amount of the average sale...

3. Redemption percentage...

4. Percentage of your coupon users who are already your customers...

5. How many coupons does each customer buy? (The more they buy, the fewer people are exposed to your product or service.)

6. What percentage of coupon customers will turn into regular customers? Again, it can seem as if they are all bargain shoppers who will never return without a discount, but that’s almost impossible. Is it possible 90 percent won’t return? Sure.

7. What is the advertising value of having your business promoted to 900,000 people — that’s the number on Groupon’s Chicago list — even if they don’t buy a coupon?

8. How much does it normally cost you to acquire a customer through advertising?

Let’s look at an example of how this might work for a restaurant. Suppose you sell 3,000 coupons with a face value of $75 for $35...

Now, let’s do the math:

Number redeemed: 3,000 x 85 percent = 2,550.

3,000 x $35 x 50 percent = $52,500 (Groupon sends a check).
2,550 x additional $10 = $25,500 (additional money spent by each customer).
total revenue = $78,000 (plus, you also get the $1,000 advertising value of having all those people introduced to your product or service).

2,550 x $85 (average retail value) x 40 percent incremental cost = $86,700.

In this example, the restaurant took in $78,000 at a cost of $86,700, which means it cost $8,700 to run the deal. The key question is how many return customers the restaurant will get for that expense. If you divide the 2,550 total coupons by two (the average number of coupons bought by each customer), you get 1,275 customers. Multiply by 60 percent (to exclude existing customers) and you get 765. Multiply again by 10 percent (the percentage of new customers who return), and you get 76 new repeat customers.

Divide the $8,700 cost by 76 new customers, and the restaurant paid $114 for each new regular, which in this example is roughly what we assumed it would cost with conventional advertising. The question the restaurant has to answer is whether it was worth the trouble to get 76 customers — especially given that it probably annoyed some of its existing regulars. On the other hand, maybe it kept some of its employees busy when they otherwise would have had short hours.

But keep this in mind: because of the huge volume, if you change any of the variables, you can get very different results. For instance, if the customers had spent an average of $95 instead of $85, the restaurant would have actually made money on the promotion — something it’s almost impossible to do with traditional advertising. Of course, it goes the other way, too. If the customers spend only the $75 coupon amount, the cost to the restaurant will be $24,000 — an expense most owners probably never even consider.

Best marketing ever? Worst marketing ever? It all depends on a few little numbers. Here is the big difference between traditional advertising and Groupon: Traditional advertising requires spending some money and knowing that it can be lost if the ad doesn’t work. With Groupon, you spend no money up front but you mess with your formula for making money. You can win big and you can lose big.

The final paragraph is pretty illuminating. It reminds me of how the Internet is altering the advertising landscape. We all know of how Google has completely revolutionized advertising—how many would have imagined narrowly targetted advertising with a budget that you set and a price of your choosing—but emerging services like online coupons are another new thing.


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