Monday, October 8, 2012

Mixed Plate: Apps You Can't Eat, But Can Eat With

You're in a restaurant or at a food counter ready to place your meal order, and when it comes time to take care of the bill, you take out your wallet... and your smartphone, to verify your digital coupon or discount. When did life get all The Jetsons on us? We use our phones for everything via the digital applications that are tailor-made for figuring out where to eat, what to do on a Saturday night or get your body hair lazered-off from head to toe. Clearly Humankind has been lacking before the smartphone circus came to town. Some of the more popular phone apps are the discount deal companies, namely for restaurants, and I wanted to see if they're really as great as sliced bread. Let's App it up, shall we?

Kimbap with spicy tuna at Oma Bap, using a Pirq discount - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I'm  not all business-minded-like, so I can't speak to the future of big social-coupon companies like LivingSocial, or several other similar group discount programs. Depending on who you talk to, they're either on the rise or ready to take their last breath. I just know that people love using them because who doesn't like a deal now and then? If you're not familiar with how they work, you sign up for a free account and they show you a list of discounts for businesses in your area. You're paying up front for a marked-down item, service or event you'll redeem before the deal's expiration date. We've used companies like this for event tickets, like a buy-one-get-one-free kind of thing, which is pretty good. Would we have gone to this event had we not seen this deal? It was a live orchestral and full chorus performing the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings, while the film plays in the background on a giant screen, but if you know me at all, and what a total filthy nerd I am, you know this was something I could not bear to miss. So sure, it's helped us out for something we had a 99% chance of attending at full price.

My biggest challenge with using these group discount companies for trying new activities is that it's like Kryptonite for commitment-phobes like me.  We've received several deals as gifts, which I'm sorry to say went unused, mostly because we couldn't figure out a convenient time for the whole family to go kayaking out in open water or do a rope obstacle course. I'm sure they would have been fun and we totally sent a really nice thank you note because they really were pretty sweet ideas.

Use your smartphone for something useful -- FOOD! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
That being said, it makes sense that restaurants are the most useful discount items because hey, we gotta eat every day. I'm not totally sold on buying a discount to a place I've never been to, because it's like giving yourself a gift certificate to a store you've never shopped at -- honestly, what would I do with myself at Garden Gnome World? I think this is a good rule of thumb for any of these group discount programs: go with what you know and don't use group discounts for exploring because those are the deals that inevitably go unused. I've had plenty of emails from friends saying, come with me to this bar/restaurant/wine tasting because I have three days before it expires AND I HAVE TO USE IT NOW. That's not fun, it's eating and drinking on a time clock. I love trying places I've never been to, but I choose based on friends' advice, not because whatever I order will be 20% off. For myself, I use restaurant deals sparingly -- I'll check their listed deals only if there's already a purchase set in my sights, and not the other way around, otherwise it just feels like impulse buys that I'll feel rushed to use later. Bottom line: I eat/drink where I wanna eat/drink.

Which leads me to the apps that are a better fit for my own shopping/eating habits. I recently tried Pirq, which you download to your smartphone and it reveals restaurants divided by nearby cities that offer discounts ranging from 20-50% off, depending on the day and time of your visit. You don't purchase the discount, the app and discount program is free; you just have to commit to using a particular one, and then when you get to the place you check in by scanning a digital symbol (it uses Microsoft TAG technology) to confirm that you are at the place and using the discount, since once it's unlocked, you just show it to whoever is ringing up your order. It's nice because it's a little more casual, you're not purchasing anything ahead of time, and you can just commit to a discount on the spot and do the check-in scan to confirm the discount. I used it a few times at two favorite lunch spots, Oma Bap and Oobas -- I had a good user experience with both, the people there were familiar with Pirq and I'll definitely use the app again on my next visits. I admit, I'm not a heavy user, so I lose access to the better discounts by not redeeming more deals per month, but if you regularly go out to lunch or stop off at a casual spot for dinner, this is a great app. Also, they donate 10% of every Pirq deal redeemed towards feeding the hungry, they have a partnership with United Way.

I also tried out the discount aspect of Foursquare, a similar GPS-based app where you check into a place to confirm you were there. It's got the nice potential to replace those punch-cards that coffee or sandwich shops would do, where you place so many orders and you receive something free after so many purchases. I know several "mayors" of restaurants and bars who get happy hour prices all the time, as long as they keep their lofty position by checking in as many freaking times as possible. I used it to get a free take-and-bake pepperoni pizza at the Papa Murphy's down the street from where I live, just for checking in for the first time there, to which I added shreds of fresh kale at home - so good. We've bought our weight in garlic chicken pizzas there over the years, so it was by no means my first visit, just my first Foursquare check-in. There's definitely benefits for using Foursquare, but it's incidental, since not all businesses wave offers around -- and they shouldn't have to. I'm not a heavy Foursquare user. If anything, I'm a Foursquare Mocker, regularly posting tweets about how I'm the Fake Foursquare Mayor of every mundane thing under the sun. I have yet to see the benefit in publicly checking in at places, beyond making yourself an ideal target for a stalker, but I did like that some businesses add incentive for checking in. A free pizza is better than a virtual badge. But Foursquare wasn't built specifically for doling out business discounts, it's basically a big data mine, and even if they did offer more deals, I'm not likely to broadcast I'm checking in at Petco, just for a few bucks off Indy's kibble. So for frequent Foursquare-er's, keep those check-in's coming and collect the hell out of those badges, I have no plans on usurping your mayorship anytime soon.

So what's the overall takeaway on smartphone apps designed for food/restaurant discounts? To be honest, I use them sparingly, or not at all. Mostly because I've heard experiences from the business side, which is a mixed bag of results. Realize that when you see a company advertising a screamin' deal on group discount programs, they're likely doing it at a loss. The discounting with some of those programs is what I would describe as aggressive, and not something all companies can afford to withstand. I realize it's essentially a marketing push, to introduce merchants to new customers and generate more walk-in traffic, which for many companies, it's worked in their favor. For mega-corporations like McDonalds and Starbucks, when they offer group discounts, their budgets can more than afford it, it's the small, mom-and-pop companies, especially restaurants, who don't always reap the benefits of gaining new customers. Which is why for myself, if I do use these deal apps and programs, I try to stick with places I regularly visit, places that I happily support with or without a discount. Progressive companies like Pirq are moving towards a more balanced relationship with their merchants, and I hope that it's a successful business model that spreads the benefit more evenly, from businesses to customers.

P.S., if you're wondering why I haven't mentioned a particular group discount company that was one of the first on the market and starts with the letter "G," it's because of all the companies with this business model, this is the one that has consistently given merchants the roughest ride with at-times questionable business practices (read Hood Canal Seafood and Oysters' experience). I can't speak to all the group discount companies, and let me stress that I've had good experiences with the ones I mention above, but in the greater scheme of things, consider yourself as responsible a customer as you would expect of a business. Be mindful and fair, because it's not always about saving a buck, but being an involved supporter of your community.

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