US Coupons IPO signals a return of the Online Deals mojo

RetailMeNot today submitted an S-1 filing as a precursor to a $230m float in the US, a clear indication of an upswing ahead for the beleaguered Online Deals market.

Some time back I talked about the diffusion of innovations curve, how deal-hungry consumers had adopted the burgeoning Deals market like a pack of clucky Brangelinas on Safari, driving the growth of the market place to breaking point. What followed was market disillusionment as the half-baked players fell short of their customers’ expectations time and time again. Now that the chaff has been swept away, or in some cases absorbed by the leaders the market is once again satisfying a powerful demand for online deals.

In Australia I expect the market to regain momentum toward a billion dollars in revenue, and $100m or so in EBIT. As a market the EBIT pool isn’t stellar, but given the winner-takes-most nature of the sector each of the 2-3 leaders will likely hold 20% of the market and share more than 80% of total profits, meaning $200m in revenues will yield ~$30m in EBIT, not bad.

Diversification in the Deals model is also apparent, with a clearer division between servicing a basic need versus impulse and discovery. The holiday category is growing with fully packaged vacations on offer turning long-haul travel into a $1,000 impulse purchase, and the utility categories such as wine and home-wares are solid. Ironically the original purpose of Group Buying, to fill every empty seat in your local restaurant, continues to miss the mark with offers appealing more to the price conscious than the culinaraly adventurous, disappointing proprietors and their staff alike.

Although no one has yet nailed the local restaurant marketplace, the prize is huge. I expect one of the leaders will emerge with a model that works and further accelerate the Australian Deals market to $1bn in revenues between now and 2016.

The serious side of Gamification

A steady stream of retail innovation exists online; some effective, some less so. But most claim to centre on a perennial problem in Retail:

How to drive sales through incentives without destroying long term brand value…

Group Buying and other Daily Deals sites were built to address this issue, and they’ve done a pretty decent job if their multi-billion dollar revenues are anything to go by! Though, to some extent they are a victim of their own success in that it’s hard for a brand to discriminate on price discretely when so many of its regular customers are Daily Deals customers.

Further challenges with Daily Deals include the fact that the Brand doesn’t typically control the creative, meaning they are often a Supplier to the Daily Deals Site not a Client. And, the Daily Deals site will leave a permanent record of the Sale in their back catalogue which will appear in Search and therefore undermine brand value. Further, the Brand owner is asked to give away quite a lot, more often than not the Retail price is discounted by more than 50% and a further 20% – 30% is given to the Daily Deals site as a commission.

Clearly there are a number of scenarios where this channel works well for a business. The unit sales volume can be significant with no marketing effort from the Brand Owner hence they are appealing in a lot of ways, especially if owning the customer is unimportant.

A radical new tilt at the problem is Entertainment Shopping, where the retail price is used only to describe the Size of the Prize, but is otherwise irrelevant. One example of Entertainment Shopping is Penny Auctions, where users purchase Bids which they use to win items, theoretically being able to win and items for a single bid, which may cost less than a dollar. TPlay for Winhe reality though is that these Auctions are super competitive and the likelihood is that you will lose many more auctions than you win, yet the bids you used on lost auctions still cost real money – in that sense it’s more akin to gambling than shopping. For the Auction site this means the overall yield per item is greater than the retail value, thus favouring the Penny Auctions themselves more than the Brand Owners or the customers, albeit customers may choose this purchasing route for the sheer joy of the Auction!

In the Entertainment Shopping category Australian Statup Wynbox has a much more evolved solution for Brand Owners. The genius of the Wynbox solution is that they provide their Buy-to-Win platform as an integrated shopping engine for an existing website, meaning the retailer retains end to end control of the user experience.

Buy-to-Win involves the retailer setting a ratio of free items to full paid items, meaning anything from 1 in 2 to 1 in 10 or more may be free, equivalent to a direct discount if that number are purchased by a single customer, or a lucky dip if you are buying just one.This is a simple way to provide a strong purchase incentive without discounting the product, and it can be fun too, so it ticks the box for the user who plays Candy Crush between shopping missions!

There are a number of interesting scenarios that underline the power of the Wynbox platform, such as in the sale of concert tickets for instance. As sales begin to lag for a concert, the ratio is introduced. The ratio can be cranked up to 1 in 2 if necessary to drive sales, but at no point is the ticket price discounted, meaning the customers who purchased the concert tickets at full price never feel cheated and the Talent and the Promoter are happy.

In fact, Wynbox works in a number of scenarios, including Fashion where margins on Full Price products are high but the vast majority of purchases normally occur at a substantial discount, with Buy-to-Win the discount can exist without an overt discount.

All retail businesses should be thinking about the entertainment value of their shopping experience as consumers explore less boring ways to shop for discretionary items. Wynbox offers a fresh solution that can be “plugged in” to an existing site, meaning a fast track to an Entertainment Shopping experience that would otherwise be very hard to achieve.

Spreets goes Hybrid in a desperate move that might just work.

Spreets recently announced their plan to include offers from competitors alongside their own, making spreets.com.au the first major player to launch a hybrid Group Buying/Super Affiliate offering in the Australian market.

I imagine the evolution of their model went something like this:

Early 2010: Spreets is formed and is among the very early entrants into the Australian marketplace, their model closely echoes the fast growing US originator, GroupOn.

Middle 2010: Spreets finds early success with a single deal each day, deals are sold at 40-50% revenue share to Spreets and consumers are excited about the new model, each offer sells many hundreds of vouchers, competition is light and shareholders are happy!

Late 2010: A number of new entrants intensify competition, including well-funded overseas players GroupOn and LivingSocial, local Catch group player Scoopon and of course Cudo who brought TV advertising to bear for the first time. Spreets immediately lose marketshare to these new upstarts, unsettling shareholders and peaking the interest of Yahoo!7, the natural rival of Cudo shareholder ninemsn. A second “side deal” is now commonplace on Group Buying sites, providing an alternative to the main offer of the day. Revenue shares of 35% are also now common as competition intensifies and daily deals businesses battle to win the best merchants.

Early 2011: Spreets is bought by Yahoo!7 for just over 22m, an incredible outcome for the Spreets’ co-founders and investors. Interestingly, a higher purchase price was touted ($40m) as the new owners congratulate themselves at having managed to jump on the fastest of bandwagons (myspace anyone?). The model has evolved to include 5 or more daily offers, vacation offers and longer running offers. Revenue shares of 30% are common.

Late 2011: Some 80 competitors exist in the market and Spreets market-share has flattened to 12-14%, products offers become frequent often at under 15% revenue share for the Group Buying business, customer discontent is at an all-time high due to shoddy product suppliers failing to deliver and 20+ daily offers are now common resembling a deal marketplace and requiring an increasingly large and expensive sales force to meet that demand.

2012: 2012 was make or break for many group buying businesses with a large percentage falling away in the second half of the year. Average revenue shares of 25% are typical and with 50+ daily offers on each of the larger group buying sites the average voucher sales per offer has declined significantly making it hard to fund the sales force required to meet the demands of a deal marketplace.

December 2012: Spreets calls it quits on the Group Buying model deciding to give the Hybrid model a go instead.

For many, the economics of a deal marketplace don’t stack up, which seems to be the case for Spreets. Meeting the demands of a marketplace without the overhead of a large sales force is possible though if competitor deals are surfaced alongside those deals originated in-house as a Hybrid affiliate/group buying business. Doing so can be profitable too, Affiliates are commonly paid 10% of gross revenue when a new customer is introduced, or almost half of the revenue retained by the group buying company, which is a good bounty given no sales effort, customer support or refunds and no exposure to shoddy merchants!

Assuming their Group Buying competitors sign up to having their offers surfaced on Spreets.com.au deal choice on the site will grow and no doubt customers will thank them for it. But what is the long term outlook for this Hybrid model?

Spreets customers will be absorbed by the competition over time, Spreets will already be losing 4-8% of Subscribers each month though natural churn and may not have the funds to replace them so a customer exodus to the competition will hurt greatly. The more successful the Hybrid model is at generating Affiliate fees the more quickly the exodus will occur and unless they can make their marketplace a great destination through the curation of compelling deal content and email targeting/personalisation they won’t come back either.

Alternatively this may be Spreets way of simply “milking the asset” until they close the doors on the business given this model will lead very quickly to some much needed profits, given their original investment it would be nice to see some return!

Group Buying fortunes on the up?

After bottoming out during the past few months, the fortunes of some Group Buying businesses seem to be on the up, albeit a significant number have collapsed or been acquired in the past six months and the outlook remains grave for many more!

The fact that the sector’s nose is slightly up is in part due to the weeding out of weaker and often less scrupulous competitors who often served only to undermine the reputation of the sector as a whole.

In fact out of the 50 largest Group Buying businesses assessed in April, only 29 remain intact just 6 months on. And given only 10% (5) of those businesses were acquired that supports the view that smaller Group Buying businesses are of limited real value. In such a crowded and undifferentiated market lifesaving investment is tricky too given a lack of brand equity, good will or asset strength (off the shelf web sites are common and subscriber base overlap with top-tier competitors is often well over 70%) resulting in the collapse of underperforming and debt laden Group Buying businesses.

A quick browse through the sites of the 29 still standing uncovered indicators of pending doom for some.

Here are the choking canaries of the Group Buying world:

  • A high degree of niche product deals, such as robotic vacuum cleaners or iPad accessories
  • No sign of “number purchased”, an essential component of Group Buying that is quickly discarded when numbers are low
  • Extended Deal deadlines, this industry was founded on deal a day for good reason!
  • A smorgasbord of deals on one page, suggesting desperate recycling of old offers

Group Buying remains a $1bn future industry in Australia, regardless if that industry seemed to lose its way and stall when it was only half way there. Regaining lost momentum will be down to the leading players showing the way once again with a combination of brilliant marketing and a commitment to helping consumers discover great business products.

The strongest already have their playbook (Living Social, Cudo and Ourdeal) and will extend their positions in the coming 6 months through a focus on back-to-basics Group Buying offers like quality restaurants, high value vacation offers and utility products such as Cudo’s Meat Merchant.

Although I suspect another 15 from April’s top 50 will be gone by April 2013, leaving only a dozen or so standing, I think I already know who they are, I wonder if they do?

Is your business suffering a Group Buying Hangover?

Group Buying helped good businesses access revenues that had previously eluded them, improving utilisation, buoying their P&L and promising a sustainable new revenue stream from this exciting new consumer channel.

But now that the sector has waned and desperate Group Buying businesses have become fixated on stack ‘em high sell ‘em low product chuff – those once buoyed businesses are left feeling a little queasy.

Just one of the problems they face stems from prepayment, one of the headline benefits touted by most group buying companies (including me).

Although quick access to cash is manna from heaven for most business owners, prepayment has left behind a tequila-like side effect.

The problem is this. A top priority for all online businesses should be around Funnel Conversion, i.e. the ability for the business to convert leads into dollars, however in a world of prepayment, conversion becomes somewhat unimportant. In fact, if breakage (unused vouchers) is a profitable exercise for the merchant, higher conversion may actually mean lower short term profits.

Now that Group Buying is providing an ever declining proportion of revenues, many online businesses that signed up to breakeven or lossmaking campaigns in order to grow their subscriber base, now find they are unable to monetize that base due to poor site performance, especially in the area of conversion.

Faced with lower than expected revenues, these companies often head back to Group Buying to find that like-for-like offers work only half as well as they did before. Now the business is in a pickle, the drug is half as effective, risk its brand by doing twice as much? Surely you know your drug dealer is never your friend?

The key is to get the fundamentals of your businesses working right before looking to Group Buying or any type of Marketing for that matter. Ensure that the purchase funnel is converting 60% or more of the people who hit “Buy Now”, that your Subscription Channel is effective, and your email strategy is delivering appropriate Open, Click and Purchase rates.

When cloaked by the shiny veneer of Group Buying dollars your site performance will look a whole lot better than it really is. Time to sober up, shake off that hangover and see if your bedfellow looks as good as you remember.

The seismic shift toward Online

I met with Business Spectator’s Alan Kohler and recorded an interview for Qantas inflight Radio in June. I was flattered to be invited to the show, the interview is now available below.

A link to the file is here.

Alan was particularly interested in a topic I have spoken about on a  number of occasions, the slow but steady adoption of the internet by all but the most tech-resistant and the impact that shift is having on traditional commerce.

Now that over 3/4 of the Australian population have a connection to the web, businesses of all types are finding that their typical customer is spending an increasing amount of time online and can be reached there quite cheaply for Brand building as well as ecommerce.

Two other significant factors beyond the amount of people online are – the nature of connectivity, i.e. fast connection speeds are no longer the preserve of early adopters – and that almost all internet users are willing to shop online, with only 5% of internet users showing concern about online security.

The shift towards fast access speeds has been so rapid that in 5 short years the issue of access for all has all but disappeared. Mobile internet use has also accelerated with many online businesses signalling that 10% or more of page impressions are from mobile devices and mobile transactions are catching up fast.

Where the online activities of the older demographics were once limited to banking and email, this is no longer the case. Over 20% of the discount shopping audience is 60+ suggesting that older folks enjoy the process of shopping online even if they don’t have to.

I think it’s fair to say that not being online in 2012 is akin to not having a mobile phone, at some point it looks a bit weird!

Meanwhile, as the Internet population has swelled to include your parents and most their friends, technology has evolved that enables Advertisers to single out their target customer and provide a customised offer on the fly – further extending the economic advantage of online commerce.

For the first ten years of the web the economic engine that powered its growth was display advertising (And subscription Porn but that’s another post!), publishers funded their growth by making money from page impressions – a refit of the existing TV and Magazine advertising model. In 2000 Google started selling ads in a new way – through search keywords which provided advertisers with a way to talk to customers based on what they were looking for, rather than what they had already found.

Now the model is shifting again, more people and more data means that publishers are now making an increasing portion of revenues from who you are, rather than just your location on the web. publishers can connect advertisers with their target Market with reasonable precision using browser tags. No longer are marketers confused about which half of their dollars are wasted, in the new world of the Internet, they spend half as much and almost none is wasted.

The rapid shift towards a more personal web has occurred in the past couple of years and the pace of change is accelerating. It was only 5 years ago that Facebook emerged as a public service, touching a Billion or so lives since.

The amount of change we see in the next 5 years will be as dramatic as the last 5, with an even greater emphasis on devices, mobility, personalisation and online commerce, bring on 2017!

Profiting from the fundamentals of Group Buying: Part 5… Instant gratification

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Group Buying is a compelling online purchase for the same reason that Music and Porn have been eCommerce stalwarts since the dawn of the Internet, because the purchase is instantly satisfying.

Unlike typical Online shopping, making a purchase through a Group Buying site means you are rewarded instantly with a Voucher or Coupon. Suddenly the customer has something real; the voucher guarantees access to the product or service and locks in the discount they have been savvy enough to secure.

Online discount shopping usually means trading off the available discount for the wait the customer will have to endure, versus paying a bit more to pick it up in store – in some categories customers are willing to pay significantly more if that means getting instant access, think Apple.

But more can be done to close the gap and make online shopping more satisfying. A voucher is a great start, something glossy and celebratory that serves to remind them how savvy they are. Game mechanics also have a part to play, with regular email updates documenting the journey of their purchase, building anticipation and a sense of fun. Lastly, why not allow pickup? If your business has physical infrastructure where the voucher can be exchanged, this is a tremendous opportunity to cross-sell (like a physical Thank You Page!).