If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You get what you pay for. There's no free lunch. We've all heard these aphorisms many times and they're true most of the time. Or at least they were until the daily deal phenomenon came along.
The weird thing about daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial is that they often live up to their billing, at least for consumers who by paying attention and choosing wisely can often get bargains that would have been unheard of just a few years ago.
In the long run, some experts say the daily deals are giving consumers such great deals that retailers are being harmed by them and will have to raise their prices or cut the quality of their products to make up for it. Could be, but you know what? That's not our problem.
The retailer's job is to find new customers, make them happy and keep them coming back. The consumer's job is to find the best deals they can and snatch them up before they're gone. It's not the consumer's job to look out for the best interests of the businesses they patronize.
Do you think Jeff Bezos tosses and turns at night worrying whether Amazon did everything it could the previous day to keep customers happy? Well, actually, he might but most businesspeople worry mostly about their bottom line. If they don't want to offer daily deals, they don't have to. So, stop worrying and start shopping. There are lots of daily deals sites, big and small, out there. Here are our 5 favorites:
It's a combination of "group" and "coupon" and it's generally recognized as the first daily deal site. It got its start in Chicago in 2008 and grew like kudzu for the first few years. Groupon has had its setbacks since then and has dipped into red-ink territory at times but it continues to offer the widest selection of discounted goods and services -- everything from wine-tasting to wheel alignment to an Indian buffet at Bollywood, just down the street from us.
The Bollywood deal is fairly typical -- for $15, you get $30 worth of gourmet Indian food surrounded by scenes from Bollywood films. It's that simple. A few things to keep in mind: Your tip should reflect the full, non-discounted price of your meal and you must be sure to cash in your Groupon before the expiration date, usually a month or two in the future. If you fail to use the deal in time, your coupon is still worth $15 but you won't get the other $15.
If you see a deal you like, be advised that others will probably like it too so don't dawdle around; only a certain number of deals are offered and once they're gone they're, well, gone. More than 480 people had bought the Bollywood deal when we checked it out. Although the total number offered isn't disclosed, chances are it's in the few-hundred category.
Restrictions sometimes apply, so be sure to read each deal carefully.
Originally, it was this kind of deal -- lunches, oil changes, hair styling -- that typified Groupon but it has since grown to include just about everything, including the kind of retail merchandise you might find on eBay or Amazon. For example, we found full-motion HDTV wall mounts for $39.99 that list at $299.99. Hey, if your spouse will let you drill holes in the wall, go for it.
At ConsumerAffairs, we've heard from only 8 consumers about their experiences with Groupon, which is pretty amazing considering the company's millions of customers around the world. This makes it a pretty safe bet for anyone who is careful to read the conditions and who takes time to understand the deal.
You might call this Groupon's mirror image. Instead of offering deals on just about anything you can think of, One Kings Lane specializes in "flash sales" on home goods -- furniture, bedding, lighting and so forth.
By definition, a flash sale lasts just a day or two. Once an item is sold out, that's it, so this is one of those times when impulse buying may not necessarily be a bad thing. Each item on the One Kings Lane site has a number in the upper right corner showing how many are left in stock, thus eliminating some of the guesswork.
We checked out the lighting section, looking for a bathroom bar to replace an aging specimen in the hall bath, and found some impressive bargains in brushed nickel fixtures with discounts in the neighborhood of 60%. The selection was not as large as Lamps Plus, our usual source for lighting supplies, but the prices were highly competitive.
While it may not be a household word, One Kings Lane is nearing the $1 billion mark, having recently raised $112 million in a fund round that valued the San Francisco-based company at $912 million. This should translate into an expanded inventory and bigger customer service staff as the company drives towards its goal of dominating the online home goods flash sales segment.
The selection is already pretty impressive, and is attractively displayed in a navigation scheme that makes it easy to find what you're looking for on any particular day.
If One Kings Lane cultivates a quiet, buttoned-up look, Woot sort of lets it all hang out. Originally a "one day, one deal" site, Woot has morphed into a flash sale site hawking everything from electronics to wine.
There's still a featured deal each day, a "Woot-Off." When we checked in a few days ago, Woot was pushing a reconditioned Galaxy tablet with a high-def 2560x1600 display for $249.99. Woot doesn't supply real inventory numbers but advised us at 11:40 a.m. that 62% of the tablets were still in stock.
Other, non-Woot-Off, items are on sale until a certain date or until the supply is sold out.
Woot generally has sort of a rummage sale atmosphere that is fun if you're into that kind of thing. Merchandise is mid-market -- the kind of thing you'd find at Walmart rather than an upscale specialty retailer.
We've received only one consumer complaint about Woot, so it looks like a safe bet as long as you read the conditions and understand the terms and exercise all the usual careful consumer cautions.
To be honest, I'd never heard of SweetJack but turns out, it's owned by Cumulus Media, the second-largest group of radio stations in the country. This means it has feet on the street -- i.e., advertising salespeople -- all over the country who are signing up local businesses for SweetJack.
This sales muscle is evidence. The Washington, D.C., version of the site is stuffed with deals, some of them actually eye-popping. One offers four $50 Restaurant.com egift cards for $32 -- $200 worth of dining for $32.
We also found cheap tickets to the Newseum -- one of Washington's most popular tourist attractions. (Though as a lifelong news industry wage slave, it's sad to see journalism is now something that exists mostly in a museum, sort of like a panda in a zoo). The Newseum tickets are normally $24. SweetJack had them for $17, which I think works out to about 30% (everybody knows newspeople can't do math).
Some categories -- most notably travel -- are still pretty light. But given SweetJack's newcomer status, it's likely these will be filling up soon. We'll be keeping an eye on Jack and will let you know how things are progressing.
We've had one report of a rocky experience. Let's hope it's growing pains.
A Nordstrom property, HauteLook and its sister site, NordstromRack, offer upscale shopping at daily deal prices. But don't think you can just stroll in and rummage through the merchandise to see if it's worth joining. Oh no, you have to join up first. It's free but it's still just one more place that now has your name, email, zip code and one of your passwords.
No doubt Nordstrom's security is better than Target's but it's surprising to see a brand as respected as Nordstrom's being so haute and oublieux about a topic as sensitive to shoppers as this.
That being said, this is the place to be if you're in the market for Cole Haan, Natori, DKNY and other top-tier brands.
We found some flat platform Cole Haan Chukka boots going for $119, a savings of more than $100 from the $228 list price, although 9.5 was the biggest size still available.
HauteLook's sales are time-sensitive. The boots had another 2 days and 22 hours left when we looked at them. However, consumers we've heard from have said they ordered items that were shown as in stock and still on sale and not only didn't get them but had trouble getting the charge removed from their credit card. So there may still be some kinks to be worked out.
Other than that, the deals are attractively presented and there are plenty of them.
LivingSocial has had sort of a hard life, with lots of layoffs and dire reports about its survival. But after years of cheap massages, cut-rate sky-diving and too many dinners to count, it's still here and is generally regarded as the No. 2 daily dealer, second only to the mighty Groupon.
Certainly in the D.C. area, where LivingSocial (and your reviewer) are based, there's a huge menu of adventures, meals and deals offered up every day.
Looking for a top-to-bottom house-cleaning? LivingSocial has a $200 job available for $99. Unlimited brunch buffet in Georgetown, normally $70? $35 on LivingSocial. You can even get your car washed -- three times no less -- a $69 value for $39.
We have heard from a few consumers about problems with their LivingSocial experience -- items not received, disputed charges, etc., but considering the volume of business that flows through the site the number of complaints is vanishingly small.
In addition to the daily deal coupons, LivingSocial has started selling all kinds of products online, much like Woot. There's everything from a three-day juice cleanse -- $89, normally $185 -- to a stove-top grill, $21.99, marked down from $49. (Hint: Try the grill before the cleanse). There's a big selection and the prices are attractive.
A shocking admission ...
Although I am surrounded by people constantly waving Groupon and LivingSocial coupons at me, I must admit that I have never used any of these services myself so my observations are based strictly on what others tell me and on what the sites themselves say.
The reason is that I am an extremely lazy, even careless, consumer who values time over money. I buy virtually everything -- from books to pretzels -- from Amazon. The reason is that, like many people, I really hate shopping and want to spend as little time on it as possible. This helps me empathize with our many readers, since I routinely stumble into the same pitfalls they do.
I must admit, however, that after years of being dragged by spouses and friends to dinners, wine tastings, concerts and so forth that cost next to nothing and after examining all of the sites covered in this article, I'm starting to think it could actually be entertaining to keep an eye on the daily deal/flash sale world and snag a bargain every now and then. Might even save a few bucks.
If you're also a daily deal novice, I'd advise making a modest start. Sign up at a few sites, nose around until you feel familiar with the system and then order a few modestly-priced items that are not completely essential to keeping you fed and housed. If things work out well for you -- or if they turn out badly -- let us know. Our review button is always there for you.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You get what you pay for. There's no free lunch. We've all heard these aphorisms many times and they're t...