Groupon's Secret: Everybody Has A Price : Planet Money Groupon — and all coupons — are based on what economists call price discrimination. Merchants want to sell the same goods at different prices, depending on the customer.

Groupon's Secret: Everybody Has A Price

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One deal Google could not pull off was a bid for the online coupon company Groupon. Start-ups like Groupon and LivingSocial offer coupons by email, and they're fueling what some call a new tech bubble.

Robert Smith from NPR's Planet Money team looks at these newfangled daily deals to see if they'll suffer the same fate as paper coupons.

ROBERT SMITH: How much would you pay for this burger?

HILDA HAMPAR: On the Slope Burger, we have lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion rings, cheddar and bacon.

SMITH: At Corner Burger in Brooklyn, Hilda Hampar charges $9.25. It's fair for New York, but it's not packing her restaurant so she made a deal with Groupon. They sent out an offer to their thousands of subscribers: $18 worth of burgers and fries for just 9 bucks.

HAMPAR: Oh, you should see the next day the coupon came out. This place was full. People was waiting outside.

SMITH: Good news, except for one daunting piece of math: Groupon gets half of the 9 bucks. That leaves only $4.50 for Hampar to pay for the food and the overhead. For Corner Burger to make money, they had to squeeze something more out of the coupon customers.

HAMPAR: If they come and spend exactly $18, then I don't make any money. But If they come in table of four, they spend 50, 60, $70, I do make a profit.

SMITH: And even better, the Groupon might convince some of the more cheapskate customers, we should we call them, to give Corner Burger a chance.

Economists call this price discrimination, the ability to sell the same product to different customers depending on how much they're willing to pay.

This was always the principal of haggling.


ERIC IDLE: (as Harry the Haggler) This bloke won't haggle.

Unidentified Man: Won't haggle?

SMITH: Monty Python's "Life of Brian" got it exactly right.


IDLE: (as Harry the Haggler) Come on, haggle.

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (as Brian) All right, I'll give you 10.

IDLE: (as Harry the Haggler) That's more like it. Ten?

SMITH: Haggling back in the day had perfect price discrimination. You could size up the rich folk and jack the price or lower the price for some poor guy walking away. Each time, you maximize your profit.

In the 1800s, though, with giant department stores opening, it became more efficient to post a single price. But merchants still wanted that haggle. They wanted the cheapskates, so they invented coupons.

Richard McKenzie is an economist at UC Irvine.

RICHARD MCKENZIE: If somebody is willing to scan the newspapers, clip the coupons, go to the store and redeem the coupon, you can be fairly certain that that individual is a price-sensitive individual.

SMITH: Oh, paper coupons had a good run. But somewhere in the last couple of decades, they ran out of steam. Once coupons started to show up everywhere, even on the store shelves, they stopped driving business like they used to. They just offered the same deal to everyone.

And this is where Groupon comes in. Groupon promised a different kind of coupon: huge discounts to get a lot of attention, a time limit to snatch it up, and a high tech shine - you can present your Groupon on a cell phone.

The company and its revenues grew so quickly that Google reportedly offered $6 billion to buy it, and Groupon turned them down - but it meant the coupon rush was on.

This week in New York City, hundreds of daily deal companies came together to look for investors and talk shop.

Kirk Barrett is with Double Take Deals.

KIRK BARRETT: Using coupons is hip. You know, the one thing Groupon has done for the whole space is made the coupon business sexy. When you think about going on a date with your girlfriend, when was the last time you brought a coupon with you? And it's not an embarrassment anymore.

SMITH: This was in a sense a cooler kind of price discrimination - bringing in the young and the wired.

But the new coupon craze has a huge downside. It took 100 years for paper coupons to overwhelm consumers. In just two years, there are now more than 400 daily deal sites. Businesses report getting calls every day from another Groupon competitor.

Patrick Albus, with KGB Deals, says that already it seems like the huge discounts aren't sustainable.

PATRICK ALBUS: And you'll see other merchants where it makes sense for them maybe not to offer a 50 percent discount but maybe to do something around 25 percent.

SMITH: The real question is whether or not the daily deals like Groupon are really bringing in new customers or just breeding a generation of deal hoppers ready to move on to the next discount. Things are already changing in the space too quickly to tell.

In fact, Hilda Hampar, the burger lady, just got a call from Google. They're getting into the business soon and want her to offer another burger deal. She says, why not?

HAMPAR: Come on, if it brings me 10 people, 10 people is 10 people. If it brings me thousand people, thousand people is thousand people.

SMITH: If the lines are out the door?

HAMPAR: Let them wait.


SMITH: A packed restaurant, she says, is the best advertising.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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