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LivingSocial deals draw mixed merchant reactions

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By Steven Overly
Monday, December 6, 2010

Sweet-toothed Washingtonians have no shortage of bakeries to sate their hankering for a gourmet cupcake. So Aaron Gordon, owner of Red Velvet Cupcakery and the frozen yogurt joint Tangysweet, regularly tries to sugar the deal.

He routinely offers big discounts through online coupon purveyor LivingSocial -- despite losing money every time. It's head-scratching logic at first glance, but Gordon regards the deals as primarily a marketing ploy.

"We believe strongly that those LivingSocial customers who have never tried us before will come back over and over again and we'll become their shop of choice," Gordon said.

For many merchants, the deals bring mixed results. Some local vendors said they struggled to make up for the money they lost in the deals, in hopes customers will return again and pay at the regular price.

The merchant attitudes are key to the future of the group-buying Web sites, such as District-based LivingSocial or Chicago's Groupon, that are suddenly garnering interest from big Internet players. Amazon.com funneled $175 million into LivingSocial just last week.

Red Velvet's Gordon acknowledges that smaller businesses with fewer locations, tinier staffs or more time-consuming services may be overwhelmed by the rush of demand and monetary shortfall that can accompany the deals.

LivingSocial Chief Operating Officer Eric Eichmann said the company's sales force works with businesses to settle on terms that will be both favorable to buyers and economically feasible for the owner. The company's chief executive and co-founder, Tim O'Shaughnessy, is the son-in-law of Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham.

"We always work with the merchant to think about what is this going to do," Eichmann said. "In some cases, we even get on the phone to help them with the spike of demand or in advance tell them they need to staff people."

Eichmann said more than 400 restaurants, spas, retailers and other venues in the Washington area have offered deals through the site since it launched here in July 2009. They also have enough in the queue to provide individual deals daily for Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and the District.

A weekend-long deal for services at the Zoe Salon & Spa locations in Gaithersburg, McLean and Fairfax sold 1,648 vouchers in July. Chief executive Andrew Tkach said his chairs were full in the following months.

The vouchers entitled customers to take 50 percent off their bill. Then LivingSocial took an additional 30 percent as the middleman. That meant Tkach lost money with each coupon-wielding client seeking a Brazilian blowout or Swedish massage.

Tkach said he wouldn't consider another online deal unless he could offer a smaller discount or if LivingSocial didn't scrape off such a large portion for itself.


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