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There's plenty of competition between the coupon sites Groupon and Living Social. They've sold millions of vouchers for everything from haircuts and bartending classes to pearl earrings. The deals rely on getting businesses to offer goods and services at deep discount. In exchange, businesses hope, for return customers. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, sometimes it's more complicated.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Ailie Ham had just opened Creative Hands, a Washington, D.C. massage therapy center, when she decided to offer deals through Living Social and Groupon last year. Within an hour, 900 sold. She soon sold out all 4,000 vouchers.
AILIE HAM: We got to the point where, literally, we have eight phone lines, and every single day, every single mailbox was full. While we were answering the phone calls, the phone was ringing.
NOGUCHI: Initially, that all seemed great. Ham split the sales with the dealmakers and received her cut - a quarter of the normal massage price - up front. Then, it was off to the races. Ham and two dozen other masseuses worked around the clock, massaging new clients. They swapped out their break-room table for a massage table. She says about a fifth of the daily-deal clients returned again and paid full price.
HAM: But I think the crowd that is attracted to a deal is attracted to a deal. It really sets a standard for how you sell your product, meaning this is the crowd you're going to draw, and that's going to be the expectation.
NOGUCHI: The deals themselves also left her deeply in the red. After paying for rent, labor, laundry and massage cream, each voucher left her $50 short. In order to cover that shortfall, Ham had to borrow heavily from banks, friends and family. But that's not even what bothers Ham. She says to handle the volume, she pulled multiple all-nighters, handwriting all the phone numbers of Groupon customers seeking appointments, only to be berated for not responding to calls sooner.
HAM: I woke up crying. Many, many, many mornings, I woke up crying.
NOGUCHI: Contrast that to Joel Mehr's experience.
JOEL MEHR: For us, I really think it's unequivocally good.
NOGUCHI: He owns Pete's Apizza, a gourmet pizza store that's used Groupon twice to draw customers to new locations. He says the typical Groupon user spent more than their coupon. And, although he can't prove it, it seems to have increased foot traffic. Also, Mehr shows me how the upfront cash from selling 16,000 Groupons helped finance remodeling that made his business more efficient.
MEHR: We got some new equipment. We made our dough-stretching table 12 feet instead of three feet, so that I can have two guys stretching dough and one guy saucing the pizza on that table.
NOGUCHI: But the deal came with one notable downside: Fewer stars from customer reviews on Yelp.
MEHR: Generally, the Groupon customers that comment on Yelp are not very good, actually.
NOGUCHI: This, it turns out, is very common. John Byer is a professor of computer science at Boston University. He recently researched millions of reviews written about many thousands of businesses that ran Groupon offers.
JOHN BYER: The Yelp star rating was 10 percent lower for Groupon users than people who had visited the merchant prior to the Groupon offer.
NOGUCHI: Byer says Groupon buyers are not only vocal, they test out businesses with a keener, more discriminating eye.
BYER: Their reviews are longer than typical reviewers. Their reviews are more widely cited. So their reviews carry more power, more weight than just the typical, run-of-the-mill review.
NOGUCHI: For their part, Groupon and Living Social say they offer on-the-ground support and online analysis tools to help businesses manage the flow of traffic and to help them structure the best deal. Julie Mossler is a spokesman for Groupon.
JULIE MOSSLER: It's up to you to make sure that your staff is consistently delivering excellent results and that you're capturing the attention of that traffic that comes in your door. So, I would say far and away, the issues that merchants see are not capacity, but it's that they're not prepared.
NOGUCHI: Groupon says a lot of businesses do make it work. They say a quarter of their customers are repeat business. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.