Glut Of Online Coupon Companies Leading To Confusion For Consumers & Merchants

Our inboxes fill up every day with press releases announcing some new online coupon site that claims to “out-Groupon Groupon” or some such nonsensical boast. But with all these new businesses jumping on the bandwagon, it’s both consumers and merchants that are paying the price.

MSNBC’s Red Tape blog focuses on a number of complaints about one site, MobileSpinach.com.

For instance, there is the story of one customer who paid $3 for a $6 coupon to a Massachusetts Chinese food eatery, only to be greeted with a blank stare when he went to redeem it. The restaurant’s owner said he not only had never authorized the deal, but that he’d also never heard of MobileSpinach.

There have been similar complaints from MobileSpinach customers in San Francisco and D.C. One deli owner in Long Island tells Red Tape that he’d been contacted by MobileSpinach to see if he wanted to arrange a discount. He says he declined the offer but that the deal showed up on the site anyway.

An owner of a Maryland cake store tells MSNBC that she’s inundated with offers from companies like MobileSpinach and the many Groupon clones that have spawned in recent months.

The co-owner of MobileSpinach even uses this glut as an explanation for some of the complaints.

“This space is getting crowded,” he tells Red Tape. “There’s just so much confusion. Sometimes merchants don’t remember what they’ve agreed to.”

The D.C.-area problems were caused by rogue affiliate sales reps, he claims. The company recently stopped offering deals arranged by affiliates, listing those only arranged directly by the site’s sales staff.

As for last summer’s complaints from the San Francisco area, he says that was the result of a brief experiment in offering deals that had yet to be arranged with merchants.

Wait — what?? Is this like the time I told my mom I was engaged to Zooey Deschanel?

Anyway… If you’re uncertain about whether or not an online coupon is legitimate, you can try a couple of things to make sure before you show up with a useless printout in your hand.

You can always check with the merchant first to see if they are aware of the deal. If no one there has any idea what you’re talking about, they will probably still be in the dark when you try to redeem the coupon.

Check the site’s refund policy. MobileSpinach says it has a no-questions-asked refund policy, but make sure that you can find a clearly stated policy either in the deal’s details or on the website.

Read the fine print of the deal. The MobileSpinach co-owner says that some of the confusion comes from coupons that are only good for online purchases, meaning that people who show up at the store are out of luck.

Not all coupons you buy online are honored by merchants [MSNBC]

Thanks to Amy for the tip!