Rules of the road for saving money on deal sites like Groupon

CLEVELAND - Are you making more impulse buys now that deals arrive at your fingertips every morning? As more and more Groupon-like sites pop up, it's easy to be enticed to buy something you normally would not buy, whether it's on Groupon or one of the copy-cat sites. Here are some things you need to know before you buy:

1. The deals sell out
With Groupon, an unadvertised number of people need to buy the deal for the deal to be offered. You probably know that by now, but did you know only a limited number of deals are sold? This has nothing to do with the ticking clock. I've seen two recent deals end by two in the afternoon. I missed out because I didn't act fast enough. The quantities vary. One sold out at about 500 offers and the other at more than 2,000. Both sold out by about 2 p.m. so make sure you act fast if there's an offer you really want.

2. Don't get too excited
While the deals sell out, don't get overzealous and buy a deal before doing your homework.

I love finding a good deal, and thought I landed on a good one recently. I'd been wanting to go to this sporting event, and thought it would be great to get a group of friends together. The tickets were a good price, and they were offering $1 beers that night. What a deal.

I organized the event with friends in just a few hours, and purchased the tickets. I was so focused on reading the fine print that I missed the true date of the event.

I saw Friday and Saturday and noticed the dates were consecutive and then saw Tuesday. I figured it was the following Tuesday. It ended up being several weeks later, and I didn't realize it until after I bought the tickets. It was a Tuesday that really didn't fit our schedule, but we were forced to make it work. Just read all the print. Don't let the excitement of the deal make you miss important details.

3. Read reviews before you buy
The offers can make any site look amazing, but spend five minutes and check out the deal for yourself. It's so easy to find reviews. Reviews give you good insight into the business so you know what to expect before you arrive. Just don't count out a restaurant if you see a few negative comments. Remember, everyone likes their food cooked differently and it's hard to please everyone.

I recently learned the importance of reviews the hard way. I bought a certificate for $1, and thought that was so cheap I didn't need to check out the elegantly-described steakhouse. Based on the address, I thought I knew the area it was in but I was wrong. It's not in the upscale shopping area I expected, but inside a hotel.

When I read reviews after I paid $1 for the certificate, I realized the description of this restaurant were far better than the reviews. People gave it very poor remarks. Knowing I'd spend good money going there, I probably will take my dollar as a loss than losing even more money going there and eating food I don't like and that's definitely not worth the money.

4. Look for other promotions
Google the company name and discount or something similar to see if there are other ways to save without paying money upfront. It may be a better idea to use the promotion you find online than buy the featured deal.

Also, if you are buying on Restaurant.com, don't pay full price. Look for discounts. They are often 80-90 percent off, especially at the end of the month. I often buy $25 gift certificates for $1. The only catch -- the good restaurants usually get gobbled up early in the month, so if there's a place you really want you may not get as steep a discount.

5. Make sure it's really a good deal
Before you buy, make sure you browse the website for the company and know the going rates for food or the service you are buying. That will tell you just how much it will cost you out-of-pocket on top of the deal you have to buy.

Customers who bought a Groupon for FTD on Valentines Day were not happy with their offer and the price they had to pay for flowers. They were directed to a special website, and the deals were more than on the regular page. FTD said it did not inflate the prices and offered refunds.

6. Read the fine print
Now, how to decide a deal is right for you so you're not wasting your money. First, read the fine print. There are limitations on some of the deals. With Restaurant.com, you usually can't use them on weekend nights (Friday or Saturday), and there is often a minimum food purchase. Alcohol is often not included toward your minimum purchase. With Groupon, you often can use the coupon toward alcohol. It just depends on the terms of the deal which are often explained in fine and regular print.

Also, look for expiration dates. Some don't give you very much time to redeem the deal which can be a problem if a lot are sold, especially if it's a service-type deal like a massage.

There are a few deals I've passed on because I worried about redeeming the offer due to all the rules and limitations. Sometimes, you can tell by the terms and conditions that there will be lots of hoops to

jump through to get the offer. It's not worth the aggravation, so I pass on those.

7. Be prepared to call customer service
I check a lot of the deal sites because it's a great way to try new restaurants in Cleveland. There are tons of great places to eat, and I'm determined to try as many as possible. However, some businesses are growing tired of all the deals and it's creating a customer service issue.

I recently bought a certificate on Restaurant.com for a local pizza place. We went one night and realized as we walked up that the certificate was void on that night of the week. It was our mistake, and we walked in anyway and joked with the restaurant owner about it as we waited for our pizza. He was very nice, interested in our story and really made us feel welcome in our new neighborhood. He told us to come back to use the certificate another time.

A few months later we returned on the right night to use the certificate, and sat down at our table. We presented the certificate before we ordered and the waitress told us they were no longer accepting the coupons and had not been for months. I told the waitress I saw Restaurant.com selling certificates for the restaurant earlier in the day. She blamed the website, and offered us no help.

Instead of coming over and offering us a few dollars off our bill or a free salad or something, the owner never approached us nor did he offer an apology. Instead, I noticed he popped his head out of the kitchen, along with a few other workers, and looked our way. It was obvious we were the unhappy couple with the coupon and that they were talking about it in the kitchen.

In the end, Restaurant.com was very nice about the situation and offered us another coupon to another restaurant plus a free one. So, we got a good deal in the end because I think I paid $2 for the $25 certificate in the first place and we ended up with $50 worth of certificates for $2.

As more deals are offered, you really have to be careful and expect the unexpected. There have been reports of other restaurants suddenly stopping the acceptance of the deals, which is why you need to present it as soon as you sit down.

Plus, restaurants need to think before they sell hundreds or even thousands of certificates to realize it may cost them money even though good restaurants will tell you they make money off all those certificates because consumers spend more money than they normally would.

8. Look for deals out of state
If you are going out of town on vacation, subscribe to that city's daily deals so you can save money on vacation. Look for admission to museums, exhibits, and restaurants. Set up an account several months in advance to take advantage of the most money-saving deals in your vacation destination. Just make sure they don't expire.

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Content courtesy: jennstrathman.com . Jenn works as a consumer investigator for WEWS-TV in Cleveland and keeps a blog to update people on the latest money-saving tips.

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