Perhaps you remember Groupon, the Chicago-based daily-deal company that flooded inboxes with improbably steep bargains during its heyday in the late 2000s and early 2010s — the company that, as AdAge once put it, “revived couponing for the Facebook and Twitter generation.” Melissa Swanson, who along with her husband Peter owns Benchmark Pizzeria, a small East Bay wood-fire pizza restaurant, says she hadn’t really thought about the company in years — that is, until customers started showing up last week, Groupon vouchers in hand, demanding a half-price meal.
“That’s weird,” Swanson remembers thinking to herself. After all, Benchmark hadn’t offered a Groupon promotion in eight years, back when it was a brand new, unknown restaurant.
As it turns out, unbeknownst to the Swansons, Groupon had reactivated that 2013 voucher and was once again selling coupons for that exact same deal — $20 for a $40 meal, or $40 for an $80 meal — on its website. This, Swanson says, despite never once reaching out to see if Benchmark even wanted to revive the promotion.
The thing is, Swanson most definitely did not want to be offering a half-price Groupon deal right now — not when Benchmark is, like so many other restaurants, already struggling just to stay afloat during this pandemic. And not when the restaurant already had a terrible experience with Groupon the first time around.
For Swanson, that’s what made this whole situation especially galling. Back in 2013, Benchmark had only signed up to do a Groupon deal because the restaurant was having a hard time filling seats at its out-of-the-way Kensington location. The problem, though, was that the type of customer who tended to buy a voucher on Groupon turned out to be a fundamental mismatch for the restaurant — customers looking for the biggest bargain, the “biggest pizza” for the lowest price. Those Groupon customers tended not to understand Benchmark’s ingredient-focused, Cal-Italian style of pizza, Swanson says, and so for years, the restaurant had to deal with slightly disgruntled coupon holders.
But at least in that case, Benchmark had signed up for the promotion on purpose. This time, when Swanson found out that the deal had been reactivated without her consent, she had to scramble to figure out what had happened. After a series of failed attempts to get someone at Groupon on the phone — “these assholes, there’s no way to get a hold of anybody,” she says — Swanson finally got a representative to chat with her through the website’s online portal.
According to Swanson, the rep told her, “we changed our payment terms and sent out emails alerting all of our past and current partners. If you didn’t respond to the email, your campaign was reactivated.”
Swanson was flummoxed by this explanation. She says she never received the email in question, and, just as importantly, Groupon never checked to see if the banking information it had on file for Benchmark was up to date. If the company was selling vouchers, shouldn’t it have been passing money along to Benchmark? And how did it even make sense to sell vouchers that were marked “dine-in only,” as these were, when the whole Bay Area is still on lockdown?
In the end, Groupon took down the coupon and agreed to delete Benchmark’s account with the company. In an email, Nicholas Halliwell, a Groupon PR representative, told Eater SF that the deal was launched “inadvertently.”
“We’ve reached out to the merchant to apologize for the inconvenience as we know local businesses don’t need any extra hassles at the moment,” Halliwell wrote. “In addition, we’ve refunded all seven vouchers that were recently sold to [Benchmark Pizzeria] consumers.” When asked why Swanson was told that the reactivation was part of a broader series of emails that had been sent out, he said the Groupon rep “misspoke.”
Regardless, Swanson says, Benchmark suffered a range of negative effects from the blunder. Several customers who arrived at the restaurant with Groupon vouchers were really angry with the restaurant. A few of them refused to pay for the food they’d ordered, or were only willing to buy half of it, which meant the restaurant wound up having to throw the rest away. Even with the promise of refunds, Swanson says she’s just waiting for one of those angry Groupon customers to leave a nasty Yelp review. Thankfully, it hasn’t happened yet.
Swanson says she isn’t sure whether to attribute the mistake to incompetence or something more nefarious, but speculated that the move might have been some sort of desperate cash grab — though Groupon’s own public fact sheet suggests that the company has still seen fairly robust profits during the pandemic, to the tune of $160 million during Q3 alone. “Maybe they thought, ‘I wonder if Benchmark would even mind,’” Swanson says. “‘Maybe Benchmark’s really hurting and they need the customers.’”
In a broader sense, Swanson says, “It feels like there’s this new trend of companies doing things to restaurants without their permission.” Last year, when delivery app companies like GrubHub and DoorDash were involuntarily adding restaurants to their platforms, Benchmark got caught up in it too: According to Swanson, Grubhub had posted a listing for the restaurant with a fake menu — a “nightmare” of a situation that took a couple of weeks to resolve.
“You just feel, as a small business owner, like, how do I stop this from happening — and how do I let the world know that it’s happening?”
Are you a Bay Area restaurant owner who has had a similar experience with Groupon recently? Send us an email on our tipline at [email protected] and let us know.