Groupon, Chest Pain And Consumer Behavior

It was unfortunate – but not very surprising – to see the news this week that Groupon laid off a portion of their 10,000 employees. If ever there was a predictable bubble, it was daily deals. But it was fun while it lasted, and you can see why there was so much overinvestment in the space. Groupon’s pitch to merchants was to ask them to take a loss by making a super compelling offer that consumers couldn't resist. The offer would generate tons of new customers that would come back and make profitable purchases for years to come.  On the surface, it seemed pretty compelling.

With the Groupon news in mind, I spent some time this week thinking about the problem of hospital readmission penalties in the healthcare industry.  For those that don’t know, the government is trying to improve accountability and the quality of patient care by imposing financial penalties on hospitals that have high rates of 30 day hospital readmissions.  Depending on the rate of readmission, the government will reduce Medicare payments by as much as 1%.  For an industry with very thin margins, this is a pretty big deal.

One of the major challenges with hospital readmission penalties is that now doctors have to not only care for the patient effectively during the initial encounter, they’re now responsible for changing the patient’s behavior after they leave the hospital.

Here’s an example: imagine an older man that doesn’t take care of himself.  He smokes, eats fatty foods, lives a sedentary lifestyle and hasn’t visited a doctor in years. One day, a pain in his chest becomes so severe that he is forced to check himself into the emergency room.  After spending a couple nights in the hospital getting treatment, he starts to feel better. When he’s finally discharged, the doctor recommends that he stops smoking, follows a cardiac diet, takes a prescribed medication, and visits a cardiologist for a checkup every week for the next 6 weeks.

But this is a person that is not used to doing any of those things. The problem that caused him to appear in the hospital – severe chest pain – is not an immediate problem for him anymore.  He feels fine.  So the hospital is being asked to significantly change the behavior of someone without the initial (and powerful) motivator in place. As a result, he’s very likely not going to follow the doctor’s orders and he’s very likely going to reappear at the emergency room.

It occurred to me that this is the fundamental problem with the daily deal industry.  Groupon has the same challenge that hospitals have.  Just like severe chest pain, their deals change behavior. Most of the people that buy half-off skydiving, or cooking classes, or services at the super expensive nail salon, weren’t planning to do those things until they saw the deal sitting in their email inbox.  But because the deals are so compelling (50%+ off) they bought them anyway and, as a result, Groupon was able to flood their merchant clients with lots of new business.

But it’s because the initial deal is so compelling that it becomes nearly impossible for Groupon to reliably deliver on their ultimate promise of bringing their merchants new, loyal and profitable customers.  Just like severe chest pain, the daily deal changes behavior.  It forces people to do something that they wouldn’t normally do.  But without a continuous and powerful motivator in place (like chest pain or 50% off) the doctor can’t get the patient to come in for an electrocardiogram and the nail salon can’t get the customer to come back for a second manicure.