Maybe this Groupon deal wasn’t a deal after all

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By Christopher Elliott

Groupon is a bargain website that promises daily deals and “unbelievable” customer service. But Stuart Lord says he received neither when he purchased a VIP wine package in California’s Sonoma Valley — a deal he later discovered was significantly overpriced.

Here are the specifics: The offer was for two people for two nights at the Sonoma Valley Inn and two “VIP” wine tastings. Total price: $169.

“The advertisement said it was worth $320 — a 47 percent discount,” he remembers.

Only, it wasn’t.

“When I used this Groupon to book the room for late January, however, I discovered that the hotel’s rate was $89 per night and that, had I used my AAA discount, it would have been $83 per night,” he says. “To add insult to deception, a few weeks later, Groupon sent me an offer for the same room at $59.”

And the wine tasting tour? It didn’t measure up, either. Lord says, “It turned out to be little more than regular wine tastings, which one could often get comped by buying wine or finding one of the many discounts in many of the local tourist magazines.” (Here’s why you need to be careful when you buy a Groupon getaway.)

Did Groupon overpromise?

Even though I haven’t purchased anything on Groupon, other members of my household have. Their experiences have been largely positive, so I assumed that when Lord followed up with the company, it would find a way to address his concerns. (Read here about another disappointing wine tasting tour.)

It did — but not to his satisfaction. When he sent it a brief, polite email questioning the price, here’s the reply:

Sorry for any confusion. It is never our intention to mislead anyone about the value of a Groupon.

Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to providing our employees with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

The value and discount percentage listed on each deal reflect the regular full price for that product or service. If the business offers other temporary discounts or decides to change their standard pricing after their deal is featured, the relative savings and value might change.

Unfortunately, we cannot foresee or control these changes. That said, we work very hard to make sure that the deals we feature are the best in town.

I wasn’t happy with that answer either because it failed to address two key problems. First, the room at the Sonoma Valley Inn appeared to have a “discount” from its rack rate, or list price, which made the discount seem significantly higher than it actually was; and second, the VIP wine tasting turned out to be more or less worthless.

Groupon responds

My advocacy team and I thought Groupon could do better than the form response, so we asked. Here’s the detailed explanation:

As I’m sure you’re aware, travel industry pricing can fluctuate based on a variety of factors, including time of year, level of availability, day of the week, etc.

We work very closely with vendors at the time the deal is created to ensure we are working with the most accurate rates and bringing the best discount possible to our customers.

The first deal in question was offered in November for a travel window of November through February. The second deal was offered in December for a travel window of January through April.

Regular un-discounted pricing, particularly for rooms booked in the time period of the second deal, varied by more than $100 depending on options selected. It is worth noting that the merchant sets the average discount across the travel window so some nights might have a 50 percent discount while others might have a 30 percent discount, and that’s the nature of the industry.

Our platform complements the merchant’s established pricing by allowing the merchant to often offer a better discount than would normally be possible, but in the end, it is the merchant that sets the advertised price versus what they can charge per room.

We do our best to ensure to our customers that the pricing established by the merchant is accurate and we’re confident we’re still providing enormous value to our subscribers.

It’s also worth noting that we do not value room nights and deals relative to AAA rates, since AAA requires an exclusive membership.

OK, that’s better, but not exactly reassuring. It appears Groupon is giving its “merchants” the ability to play pricing games with discounts which may or may not amount to real savings, and without any accountability. Lord was hoping Groupon would say, “You’re right, this isn’t a real deal,” and offer some money back or a credit. (Here’s our guide to fixing your consumer problems.)

I don’t know if I would have pushed for that. After all, pricing in the hotel industry can be mercurial. But it would have been nice for Groupon to take a little more responsibility for a deal that wasn’t really much of a deal, at least as far as this customer was concerned.

Did Stuart Lord get a deal from Groupon?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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