A Nation of Switchers

Matt Harris —  July 25, 2011 — Leave a comment

I was on a call with a senior guy at one of my portfolio companies recently, and asked him what the background noise was. He explained that he was at a “Daily Deal” conference. Of course I replied “WTF?”, and he explained that he was one of 500 attendees at the conference, and that it was one of 4 or 5 conferences entirely focused on the Daily Deal phenomena that were taking place this year. Thankfully, he was there as a vendor and not a YADDO (Yet Another Daily Deal Outfit).

If you’ve ever sat down and tried to calculate the lifetime value of a customer against your acquisition cost (and if you haven’t, you should), you will recall that the single most impactful cell in the spreadsheet is the assumption about how many times the customer buys (or, if it’s a service, how long they stay loyal). In the academic literature, and among the consulting firms that study these matters, it is a settled issue: loyal customers generate well over 100% of the profits of almost all businesses.

A long time ago, when I was doing some work in the telecom field, I recall pawing through vast reams of customer data to evaluate the different profitability profiles of different customer segments. Most of our conclusions were nuanced, subtle and open to refutation; the only one that was blindingly obvious was that customers acquired through promotional marketing techniques didn’t stick around long, and therefore were unprofitable. This led to a different kind of segmentation, what you might call behavioral segmentation. In other words, we found that people divided into two buckets, Loyalists and Switchers. There were all types of Loyalists, some who stayed because of inertia, some who were brand ambassadors and truly loved the company, etc, but there was only one kind of Switcher: the bad kind. Bear in mind that this was a telecom company, one of the only types of vendors for whom promotional marketing even stands a chance of working, in that the recurring nature of the service and the high switching costs should create at least passive loyalty. Imagine this math for a pizza place in a large urban area … a disaster.

There have been many critics of the daily deal model, who focus on how unprofitable the initial transaction is for the merchant. If we go back to our lifetime value spreadsheet, that critique gets at the cost of customer acquisition cell, which I will agree is important. Far more important to me, however, is the likelihood (or inevitability) that the customers acquired in this method will have low levels of loyalty, and will readily switch to competitors when the next deal shows up. Groupon’s mobile app “Groupon Now” is the apotheosis of this … by using it, the consumer is assured to get a deep discount on anything they purchase, thereby guaranteeing that they will never be a profitable customer for any merchant, ever again.

Another of the critiques of the daily deal model is the opacity of it, on the part of the retailer. The customer doesn’t even present a payment card, just a piece of paper, so the retailer gets little or often zero data about them. I would submit, however, that they get the most important piece of data they need, which is that the person is inherently a Switcher, or (more likely) has been trained to be a Switcher by Groupon, Living Social, etc. They’ve just walked into the establishment with a sign on their forehead reading “Unprofitable”. It’s kind of like the attractive young assistant who has an affair with his boss, eventually convincing her to leave her husband and marry him, only to be surprised a few short years later when she turns around and leaves him for another man. By cheating on her husband with you, didn’t she tell you all you needed to about her tendencies? Groupon merchants are “stealing” customers away from their competitors, don’t they think that the irrefutable infidelity of those customers will reoccur?

Let’s take this to its logical extreme. Imagine everyone in the US armed with a smart phone and some daily deal company’s version of Groupon Now. Every purchase we make takes into account which nearby vendor (or online vendor, depending on the category) is running the deepest discount. Retailers have margins ranging from 2% (grocery) to 19% (restaurants). If you slice even 25% off the average bill (vs. the 75% they give up now to Groupon), they are all dead. If you slice 25% off 25% of the customer bills, for a 6-7% hit to margins, most are dead and all are hurting. The only answer: raise prices across the board to compensate for the impact of the Switchers. This further drives the average consumer into the arms of the discounters, in a cannibalization race to the bottom, creating a Nation of Switchers.

This is not going to happen. Retailers know the value of loyalty, and will team up with companies like Foursquare and others to focus on rewarding loyalty, not switching. In two years, we will look back on those Daily Deal conferences with a rueful smile.

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