May 25, 2018
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Spending to save: How does that work again?

By Alexandra Petri, Special to the BDN

The Groupon IPO! The Groupon IPO! Never has such a fuss been made by so many about something that emails me to suggest I get a half-price haircut.

Groupon is living on borrowed time.

When I offer people half-priced massages, they contact the local authorities and prevent me from getting too close to parks. When Groupon does this, they value it highly and give it a giant IPO.

“This is incredible,” we say, clicking “Get This Deal.” “We had no idea that we wanted someone to clean our home using only yoga and kale, but if we don’t sign up, we won’t hit the tipping point!”

It’s a bubble, all right.

If I behaved like Groupon, I would be considered a public menace. No one would come near me at social events, except to throw their drinks on me and yell cutting things.

Groupon is essentially your mother but with more bad puns. It emails you every day with a suggestion that you work out more, eat healthier food and get a haircut. Occasionally it implies that you’d be better off if you tried sky diving or full-contact ballooning, because You Never Quite Know When the Hand of Sweet Death Will Touch You, So You Might as Well Live While You Can.

I understand that this is the ultimate first-world complaint and that I should be elated that we live in a golden age of Group Coupons, which means I can enjoy locavore delights at a gastropod price, or something. But the amount of money I’ve spent on the marriage of Group and Coupon, saving money on things I never knew I needed, is enough to keep a small principality in chips. “This ca lf’s meat burger tenderly massaged in truffle oil was 75 percent off!” I yelp. “I haven’t so much lost $50 as saved $150.” I hear that this logic is used at weddings when in-laws calculate their number of daughters and sons.

It urges you to save money on things you wouldn’t have spent money on in the first place. This is saving money only in the sense that buying a $1,000 dress for $400 amounts to saving $600, but if any of us understood how finance worked, we might not be in this mess as a country. Even Groupon doesn’t seem to know. For a while it appeared to be confusing its net with its gross.

True, there are some rare cases when Groupon offers something people actually want. Then the network is swamped within moments. Other, more knowledgeable people have explained patiently that Groupon is either bad for business (people don’t come back, and you’ve sold your services at a lower price for the dubious pottage of Groupon crowds) or bad for business (regulars wait to go until a Groupon is offered) or good for Groupon (people buy Groupons and forget to show up).

Eventually, we’ll figure this out. Probably after the IPO, which has been more ballyhooed than that Spiderman musical and seems likely to result in the same number of head injuries.

But everyone will buy the stock, even if they doubt that they’ll ever use it and suspect it’ll be a waste of money.

If not, the deal won’t be on.

Alexandra Petri is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial page staff.

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