In the age of social networking, group buying emerged as the Facebook-esque coupon story of 2010; bold, inventive and utterly unstoppable. At barely two years old, the Chicago-based outfit Groupon -- a site that has burrowed into our online lexicon -- is projected by Forbes to make $1 billion in profit faster than any company in history, web-based or not. Take that, Google (in more ways than one.)
But Groupon isn't the only couponing news of 2010. Through the first nine months of the year, 2.5 billion coupons were redeemed, up 5.3 percent over last year. From fast food joints to college campuses, the most prevalent trend was further digitization of the formerly paper-only clippings. What began slowly with printable online coupons blossomed this year into a multi-platform trend, led by smartphone-compatible coupons. Scannable barcodes, in-store access, social media rewards and more brought the former stalwarts of Sunday newspapers to a younger, hipper crowd.
The collection of news and developments is nearly endless, running the gamut from victory to faux pas, yet the following persevered to make our list of top-10 coupon stories of 2010. No matter what form these coveted discounts take next (chips planted directly in the brain, anyone?), one thing is for certain: With the total value of coupons redeemed this year teetering around $2.8 billion, saving money is always in style. Coupons ain't going nowhere.
1. Group-Buying Coupon Trend Goes Viral
The house Groupon built in November 2008 is now a bonafide worldwide phenomenon, with countless sites jumping aboard the group-buying wagon. Outfits like LivingSocial and Tippr.com are found in numerous cities across the nation, from metropolises like Los Angeles to small markets like Kalamazoo, Mich. The movement truly showcases the power of Internet buying, as rapid growth in Asia has led to the creation of 1,200 sites in China alone.
The secret to group-buying is at the heart of most modern social movements: Ease-of-access and word-of-mouth. Consumers love social couponing because it puts a stellar deal from their city directly in their hands every day -- say, $30 for $60 dollars of grub at an independent eatery. Merchants see it as an incredible promotional tool to pull in curious locals and churn out return customers. Despite several reports of group-buying disasters, the model is rarely at fault. In most cases, demand was so overwhelming the businesses simply couldn't keep up.
2. Kids Clue-In To Mobile Coupons
Step aside, Mom: People over 40 no longer have a stranglehold on the coupon market. Social and digital media have brought discounts to the masses like never before, as more youngsters are interacting with their favorite businesses through the "Like" function on Facebook and exclusive deals on Twitter. Social media allows followers to personally track everything -- from Starbucks to the local coffee shop -- and this year it pushed the mobile coupon market from relative obscurity to superstardom. Consumers exchange "tickets," which are scanned or entered by a cashier at the register, and receive a discount or rebate in return.
The trend is hardly surprising when you realize more than 4.5 billion cell phones are used globally (yes, that's a "B" for billion). A June 2010 study by Ball State University found nearly 50 percent of folks would accept coupons via text message. What's more, expert estimates suggest the number of active cell-phone users in the U.S. alone will grow from 10 million in 2009 to 53 million by 2013. All this equals rapid mobile-coupon growth and merchants have been quick to latch on. According to a 2010 survey by Unica Global Marketing, 57 percent said they either already use or intend to use mobile-marketing tactics, whether in the form of coupons, applications or social media accounts.
Read an overview of more mobile-coupon highlights from 2010 in our blog post "Rev Up Your Cell Phone For eCoupons."
3. McDonald's Reneges On Real Fruit Smoothies Coupon
Ronald and Co. had a ho-hum year in just about every respect. Not only was McDonald's voted the worst hamburger in America and photographer Sally Davies discovered a Happy Meal doesn't age, the face of fast food reneged on millions of coupons for its new line of Real Fruit Smoothies.
The story from mid-July is strange: It's a tale of underestimation by a company that should know better. Micky D's generously distributed 32-million coupons for a free sample of the smoothie, then decided in the final hour they hadn't stockpiled enough supplies to meet the demand. Talk about overlooking basic economics. Either way, Starbucks and Dairy Queen smelled blood and swooped in, offering their own coupons to fill the void. Learn the details in our post "Coupon Alternatives to McDonalds Canceled Free Offer."
4. Google Comes *That Close* to Buying Groupon
Oh, Groupon, how you've attracted the big boy on the digital playground. Not as if the start-up didn't deserve the attention. According to comScore, Groupon is currently visited by 6.4 million people daily, has over 30 million e-mail subscribers globally, offers deals in 300 major markets, and was making a profit just seven months after start-up. There's also that little thing about being the fastest-growing company ever.
So people took notice when Google started throwing its weight around with talks of a buy-out. What began as a "modest" $2.5 billion offer in late November grew to a purported $6 billion in under a week. By the end, Groupon was the only outfit not talking about the ultimate deal of the day (or year). Chief Executive Officer Andrew Mason told Business Week he was concerned ownership by Google would "sap employee morale and alienate business clients."
Time will tell if Groupon sees Facebook-sized success or if the group-buying bubble is about to burst.
5. Online Coupons Go Viral
You'd think coupons were catching a cold with how many trends went viral this year. In 2009, close to 397 billion printable coupons were distributed online, a figure that grew by nearly 25 percent in the first half of 2010. Over one-third of all Internet consumers currently use printable coupons to purchase an astounding collection of goods, from clothing and electronics to groceries and airfare. Stats also show a 38-percent increase in page views on websites with discount coupons.
While it's too early to accurately evaluate the swirl of discount activity this holiday season, one trend emerged above all others -- free shipping. The National Retail Federation reported in late October "nearly 85 percent of merchants would offer a free delivery code or coupon during the yuletide shopping rush." Official numbers haven't yet been tallied, but Free Shipping Day on Dec. 17 was the third heaviest day of online spending in history. Let that stat speak as it will.
6. Newspaper Coupons Aren't Dead Yet -- But They're Close
Journalists already mourn the death of traditional newspapers. Until recently, one of the few things keeping them remotely conscious was ad revenue, including coupons. It's safe to say papers are about to enter a coma, as digital coupon growth outgrew newspaper coupon growth for the first time in 2010 by 10 to one. Sadly, the future becomes even more dire when consumer habits are to blame. Nearly a third of all U.S. coupon users -- around 13.1 million people -- no longer clip from their Sunday paper; an increase of about 4 million since 2008. Newspaper coupons will soon take their place alongside pay phones and, if journos are correct, newspapers themselves.
7. Newspaper Fliers Move Online
The print death rattle became a death pounding this year in regards to traditional paper coupons. Online circulars not only make it easier to compare prices and find deals than their print brethren, they also save trees. The perks make them popular with folks on both side of the frugal spectrum, including those who simply shave costs and those with concerns for the environment. Either way, it's a loss for newspaper mythos and win for just about everyone else.
We compiled a list of more than 100 must-have grocery store circulars back in March, right as the movement hit its stride.
8. College Coupon Books Go Digital
University campuses nationwide will grow curiously bare in the next few years as much-loved coupon books make their way online. Publishers at large universities gave students instant digital access to the same local deals as found in print booklets, including college-targeted deals at bookstores, banks, tattoo parlors and tanning salons.
The books have wallowed online for several years now, but 2010 saw an upsurgewith the introduction of user-friendly, digital-only aspects. The "Food Court" option adopted by publisher Campus Specials allows students to order online from an impressive list of local restaurants. Read about this feature and other burgeoning sites in our blog post "5 Free Online College Coupon Books."
9. Newspapers Catch The Group-Buying Coupon Wave
While many of the trends on this list slowly grew and peaked throughout the year, this is a relative newcomer, one that could show major growth in 2011. In classic "if you can't beat 'em" style, newspapers across the country have responded to the group-buying phenomenon with their own group-buy deals, delivered daily to subscribers' inboxes.
10. Student Coupon Scanning Nearly KOs Restaurant
In March, half-starved university students proved businesses don't have to digitize their because others will do it for them. Much to the chagrin of Australian burger chain Grill'd, students scanned and e-mailed a print-only deal, after which the coupons went viral and customers mobbed the restaurant. When the restaurant tried to close its doors, the snubbed crowd became outraged and a competitor decided to pick up the slack.
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