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Groupon IPO: An Internet star falls to Earth

Groupon IPO was poised to raise $25 billion a few months ago. Now, the Groupon IPO is slated for less than half that. Why the change?

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"Most of the deals are for female-centric services like spas and nails or for high-ticket non-necessities like skydiving and travel," says Richard Breen, a Greenville, S.C., marketing executive who used to use Groupon. "I typically delete it each day now without opening the email."

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When she first started using Groupon in 2008, Sabrina Kidwai, of Alexandria Va., was happy with the deals site. But then she used a Groupon for a picture canvas for a family photo. She placed the order three days before the Groupon's expiration, but the merchant was so overwhelmed with the response to the deal that it couldn't fulfill her order. What ensued was a customer service nightmare that ended with Kidwai getting her picture canvas two months later.

"I definitely think there are some wonderful deals, but users really need to pay attention and speak up when the company provides you with a bad experience," she said.

Adding to growing customer discontent, Groupon, which was initially seen by small mom-and-pop shops as a way to drum up new business, was losing favor with some of them. Merchants began to do the cruel math on the daily deals.

Restaurants offering $50 of food for just $25 only collect $12.50 — not even enough to cover the cost of the food. Some businesses also complain that the deals for new customers anger long-time patrons. Others say that the bargains attract high-maintenance types who don't turn into loyal customers.

"Your restaurants are full packed with people who aren't making you any money," says Paul Evans, a Kansas City marketing executive who advises clients against using Groupon.

Take Jessie Burke, for instance. Last year, the owner of Portland's Posies Café offered a $13 coupon for $6. The café was deluged with customers and Burke ended up having to take $8,000 out of personal savings to cover payroll.

"It is the single worst decision I have ever made as a business owner," Burke said in a blog post that quickly went viral.

Andres Arango, founder of natural jewelry company muichic.com, had a similar experience. He sold 80 coupons — $35 of jewelry for $15 — in two days. But of that $15, he only got $7.50. And he still had to dole out $35 worth of jewelry.

As far as customers? "They never came back," Arango said

John Byers, a Boston University computer science professor who conducted a study on thousands of Groupondeals, wrote that he found that "Offering a Groupon puts a merchant's reputation at risk. The audience being reached may be more critical than their typical audience or have a more tenuous fit with the merchant."

Groupon also has faced trouble behind its own doors.

After only two months, its public relations chief quit in August. The next day, CEO Mason wrote a 2,500-word email to the staff defending Groupon against critics. That email was leaked to the press and then lambasted by some analysts and members of the investment community for violating terms of the quiet period.

Two seasoned executives hired as COOs also left. The latest, former Google sales vice president Margo Georgiadis, resigned after five months to return to Google. Her departure coincided with Groupon'sannouncement that it was restating its revenue by around half.

"It's like watching a Ben Stiller movie and waiting for the next painful moment," says Mulpuru, the Forrester analyst.

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