A year ago, Rakesh Agrawal, an analyst and journalist who spent many years working in the local advertising business, wrote a series of devastating articles about Groupon. At the time, the digital coupon firm was regarded as one of the most brilliant Internet advertising companies to come along since Google. In fact, Groupon was so hot that Google itself offered $6 billion to buy it—but Groupon decided it didn’t want the search company’s billions and instead prepared to raise many billions more in a stock offering. Now, just before the IPO, Agrawal was calling Groupon’s entire business model into question.
“Groupon is not an Internet marketing business so much as it is the equivalent of a loan sharking business,” Agrawal wrote, and the critique got more scathing from there. To you and me, Groupon seems like an easy way to save money on spas, auto detailers, chiropractors, and lots and lots of people who want to remove hair from your nether regions using wax or lasers. And to many investors, Groupon seemed like a sure thing. In 2008, its first year of operations, the company booked $94,000 in revenue; by 2011, it was collecting $644 million per quarter, leading some to call it the fastest-growing company of all time.
But as Agrawal described it, Groupon was riding high because its most important constituency—the small businesses who slashed their prices to entice Groupon’s customers—was getting ripped off. When Groupon runs a deal with a local business, it demands very unfavorable terms. First, the merchant is asked to substantially reduce his prices. Then he has to agree to give Groupon a huge split—often 50 percent—of the tiny amount that he does make from each Groupon sale. For instance, if my fast-food shack normally sells a burger-and-shake combo for $10, Groupon will want me to offer it for $5, and then take half of the $5 sale—so I’ve just sold $10 of merchandise for $2.50.