What could be better than getting turned on to a new restaurant or hair salon for half the price?

Finding a place on your own with fair prices.

At least that's what an increasing number of Groupon users are deciding, as they deal with cafes, day spas and other retail businesses that are overbooked, understaffed and understocked.

The economic pressure of satisfying hordes of Groupon users paying a fraction of regular prices has crushed some coffee shops, restaurants and massage businesses. For others, it's just been a flop, turning away other customers, at least temporarily.

Indeed, while Groupon's website says that businesses that use Groupon "always come out ahead," that isn't so, say business owners, researchers and marketing experts.

"The risks are much more varied than people understand," says Bob Phibbs, a retail consultant and the author of Groupon: You Can't Afford It — Why Deep Discounts Are Bad for Business and What to Do Instead. Many entrepreneurs, he says, lack the knowledge to evaluate these deals and the potential impact to their business.

"I think it's a bad idea. I don't buy the loyalty. I don't buy the 'give [people] a deal so they will come back and spend more money,' " says Phibbs. "I think all of it is just built on hope, and that's really dangerous for business."

Group coupons
Groupon, launched in November 2008 and now awaiting its initial public offering, is the largest of dozens of online coupon sites offering daily deals for cities around the country, typically at discounts of 50 per cent to 80 per cent. Groupon's email subscribers purchase these vouchers online, share them with their friends and family on Facebook and Twitter, and have a certain amount of time to redeem them.

It was conceived as a way for small businesses to get exposure and lure in new customers who, they hope, will become regulars.

Only that's not how it's working out for many businesses, marketing experts say.

"You get a disproportionate number of deal chasers that aren't very likely to come back," says Utpal Dholakia, a professor of management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business who has run studies on the marketing effectiveness of these deal sites. And in many cases, you alienate your existing customers.

That's what happened in Diane Benney's boot-camp class in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

After her instructor, Cathy, did a couple of promotions on online deal sites, the class Benney had been religiously attending for more than a year doubled in size. The dynamic of the class changed, too.

"Before, the people that were there worked their butts off," says Benney, a stay-at-home mom. "Everybody was there for a reason."

The new crowd, however, seemed to be fitness dabblers who "weren't really into it." It made the class less enjoyable for her, and she counted the days until the Groupon deal expired. Almost none of the newcomers returned, she says, making the promotion a flop for everyone involved.

True, there are many business owners for whom these promotions are a success. But even they concede they can be a burden for their customers.

"I only do it in summer when business drops off," says Amy Peddycord, the owner of Invoke Studio in Indianapolis, which offers Pilates and yoga classes.