When Brenda Mitchell saw the Groupon offer last summer for a 75-minute, on-location photo shoot for $59, she knew that it would be perfect for her daughter’s upcoming senior portraits.
The deal was with an Akron photographer and would also offer an 8x10 print and a 25-image disc — what was billed as a $337 value.
“My daughter is very artistic, so the appeal was to take photos in downtown Akron,” said Mitchell of Copley Township.
Her daughter, Mina Romaniuk, a senior at Revere High School, didn’t want to go to a studio to take her special portraits.
So when they met photographer Ian Holmes of Anchor Photography Studio on Dec. 16, the photo shoot went great and Mitchell said she could tell Holmes was capturing her daughter’s “quirky smiles.”
Holmes told Mitchell that he was a little behind schedule, but he would have her disc ready in three weeks.
Little did Mitchell know that Holmes apparently was behind on all of his jobs and was more than three weeks behind.
Around the same time, Karen Sugden of Coventry Township was still waiting for her discs from two Groupons that she bought for her family portraits. Her photo shoot was on Nov. 11, though her family had begun trying to contact Holmes around Labor Day to schedule their session.
Both women, as well as others who posted on Anchor’s Facebook page, left multiple messages for Holmes for months with no return calls or messages. Eventually, both received their discs in their mailboxes — Mitchell just last week and Sugden at the end of December. There was little explanation, other than he was really busy.
Neither received their 8x10 print and Mitchell’s photos were not edited on the disc, so she will need to get them edited and printed. Both said they did get more photos on the disc than originally promised and that the quality was excellent. But they say they would have had a much better experience if the business owner had kept them apprised of the problems he was having.
“All in all, I’m happy with how the photos turned out, but gosh, what a headache. If he would just call people back and say, ‘I’m so over my head ... ’ Never once did he ever give an update,” Sugden said.
Multiple attempts to reach Holmes via multiple methods did not result in a return call or email.
Nicholas Halliwell, public relations manager at Groupon, said the company, which offers highly discounted deals from local and national merchants, was “aware that some of our customers experienced delays in scheduling appointments with Anchor Photography, and we worked with the merchant to help ensure fulfillment. If any of your readers experienced an issue with this deal or any others, they’re welcome to reach out to us at www.groupon.com/support.
“We do everything in our power to vet merchants and coach them to success, even capping the number of deals sold and mediating customer resolutions. But since we are not the actual vendor offering the service, we don’t have complete control over the redemption experience,” he said.
Christy Page, president of the Akron Better Business Bureau, said Anchor Photography received an “F” rating after the bureau began receiving complaints and the company was unresponsive.
For businesses, a Groupon-like deal can be great. But there’s a cost to businesses to offer the deals, which are usually half off regular prices. Sometimes businesses want to use that as a “loss-leader.” Perhaps they don’t make money on a particular offer, but hope to get new customers who will bring repeat orders.
Small-business owners need to consider what happens if there is a flood of new customers. Page asked: Can they handle that? She suggests putting a cap on the deal, especially for businesses in the service industry, where there can be only so many appointments scheduled each day. Anchor Photography’s Groupon deal from last July said “more than 90 bought.”
“For some small businesses, the interest in their products or services can be overwhelming and more than their ability to deliver,” Page said. “Another key point is the consumer became a customer the minute they clicked on that daily deal and not the minute they called to schedule. There might be a whole lot of people they have to make happy and their whole point on advertising on Groupon is defeated,” Page said.
If there is a problem, then customers need to know, Page said.
I’ve had mostly good experiences when buying from Groupon, Living Social and the Beacon Journal’s own Daily Deals offers. But I tend to buy deals for places that I am familiar with or I know are established. I had one friend buy an exercise deal, only to find the place filthy. She contacted Groupon and got her money back. Another friend bought a deal for a massage and when she arrived at the location, she kept walking, because it wasn’t somewhere she said she wanted to go in.
I’ve gotten half-price deals on jewelry-making classes, meals out and miniature golfing. It’s a nice way to support and try out local businesses and certainly not everyone has problems redeeming their certificates.
Both Sugden and Mitchell said the experience won’t stop them from continuing to buy deals, but they will be more cautious. Sugden’s daughter has already purchased another photo shoot with another photographer.
Here are some tips from Groupon:
• Examine the fine print — Groupon says it clearly lists any restrictions for offers.
• Have reasonable expectations — Because a merchant is discounting the service to get a customer, Groupon suggests patience in waiting possibly “a few weeks to book an appointment.”
• Read the return policy — Groupon says if the consumer is disappointed, “we’ll work with you to make it right or give you a refund.”
Separately, here is advice from the BBB on what to do if you are having problems with a merchant or if that merchant has gone out of business:
If goods or services have been paid for, a business is obligated even if the company closes, or it owes a refund, the BBB said.
• Write to the owner and keep copies of your correspondence. Mail is usually forwarded when a business closes.
• If you paid via credit card, write to your credit-card company to dispute the charges. Under federal law, you have 60 days after the charge first appears on a bill (this doesn’t work if you paid with a debit card).
• Contact the business’ landlord. You can inquire about gaining access to merchandise inside the property.
• File a complaint with BBB at www.bbb.org/complain. If the company hasn’t closed completely, BBB will help you try to resolve the issue. If the company reopens, your complaint will follow them.
• File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov. FTC cannot help resolve your complaint, but the information they receive helps their investigations.
• If the company files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you have 90 days to file a claim with the bankruptcy court. Forms and more information are available online at uscourts.gov.
• If the company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it means they intend to stay in business and need time to reorganize. During this time, they usually honor contracts, gift cards, etc., and try to fulfill delivery of all goods and services already purchased. If the company owner does not file for bankruptcy, you could file in small claims court.
• Service warranties might still be honored by the manufacturer or a third party servicer. Contact the manufacturer to find out if another business in your area will honor the warranty.