September 14, 2011

ASK RESIDENTS of Prince George’s County to describe the ways in which the big, majority-African American jurisdiction gets the short end of the regional stick, and prepare for the floodgates to open.

Among the grievances: A quarter of the federal government’s workforce lives in Prince George’s, which brackets the District to the east, yet all but a few of them face long, daily commutes since the feds rarely lease office space there. Private-sector employers also tend to locate their businesses elsewhere, meaning that three in five Prince Georgians must leave the county to go to work, the highest percentage in the region. By and large, upscale retailers have also shunned the county.

Now some Prince George’s officials say insult has been heaped upon injury by the big online dealmakers Groupon and LivingSocial, which offer daily discount coupons for restaurants, salons, museums and retailers of all sorts. The companies, which are expanding fast and spawning dozens of imitators (including The Washington Post’s own The Capitol Deal) seem to have a blind spot where Prince George’s is concerned.

Although both target businesses and customers in dozens of places across the country, including small cities such as Ogden, Utah, neither focuses on Prince George’s. Groupon has run regional maps on which Prince George’s — unidentified — appears as if annexed by neighboring Montgomery County. LivingSocial, whose headquarters are in the District, offers regular discount deals to the west (Montgomery and the District), the east (Annapolis and Anne Arundel County) and the north (Baltimore City and Baltimore County), while skirting Prince George’s.

Both firms offer occasional deals in Prince George’s, but those efforts seem halfhearted. On Wednesday, Groupon had nearly 130 discount deals on offer in the metropolitan area, by our count; of those, two were in Prince George’s. And the other day, LivingSocial pitched a discount on 18 holes of golf and lunch at Prince George’s Glenn Dale Golf Course, under the heading “The Best Daily Deals in Montgomery County.”

This is understandably galling to Prince Georgians. After all, the county is populous, approaching 900,000 people, and has relatively deep pockets, including a median household income of $70,000.

So what gives? A spokesman for LivingSocial told us that the firm constantly reevaluates expansion opportunities but that so far it’s determined that Prince George’s lacks the variety and density of merchants to make the cut. A Groupon spokesman sent figures suggesting that merchants in Prince George’s accounted for about 5 percent of the 3,100 deals the firm has offered in the Washington metropolitan area in the past two years.

It’s true that Prince George’s covers 496 square miles, some of it sleepily suburban or forested. But it does have more than 2,300 retail businesses, which together employ some 40,000 workers. Not exactly the boondocks.

We don’t believe that the discount firms are excluding Prince George’s out of malice, racial or otherwise. It may be that the relative lack of high-end retailers makes the county less attractive for discount deals; in other words, the online discounters’ inattention could be a symptom, not a cause, of the problem. In any event, plenty of Prince Georgians would surely rush at the chance of an online discount deal — if only they could get one. That makes us think the county’s worth another look.