03/09/2011 04:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Groupon Deal That Wasn't Such A Deal

See update below

NEW YORK -- Did Groupon serve up a raw deal? According to users, a recent offer for an online printing service wasn't the money-saver it first seemed.

Some of the 1,435 Groupon users trying to redeem a March 2 deal that offered $50 worth of "Personalized Printing Online" from Vistaprint for $10 to customers in Baton Rouge, La., found that the Vistaprint site initially lacked the field for entering the coupon code at checkout.

A Vistaprint rep responded to confused users on the offer's comment board. "My understanding is that you all received a link to the Vistaprint website - unfortunately you cannot redeem through this main link (coupon code box is not enabled)," she wrote. "Groupon will be sending out the correct link shortly. Sorry for the delay, but thank you for your patience!"

The follow-up email from Groupon gave the following instructions:

We're writing to inform you of an important change to the redemption instructions for this Groupon.

The redemption instructions originally stated that you have to visit to redeem your Groupon. The business has changed the website where you redeem your Groupon to, so please make sure to follow that step when using your Groupon.

The new website led to a mirror version of the site -- seemingly identical, but with a few important differences.

The new site included the missing entry field for the Groupon code. It also readjusted sales rates so that a flat-rate 30 percent -- or, in some cases, 31 percent -- discount applied to all items on the site, a Vistaprint discount unmentioned in the Groupon offer.

The non-Groupon Vistaprint site featured a wider range of discounts. For some items, only a 10 percent discount applied. For others, that number jumped to 40 percent. A cached version of the "specials" page shows discounts for business cards that are 80 percent off. Accessing Vistaprint through different sites acting as affiliates also led to different discounts.

"Discounts on the homepage can always be different," Vistaprint spokesman Jason Keith told The Huffington Post. "There could be a deal running on the homepage that's completely different, and it's possible, depending on the channel you come in with, you could see a different deal on a different day."

In short, the prices for an item can depend on the day it's purchased or the site through which users access Vistaprint. This elaborate pricing structure leaves room for deal-seekers to carve out the most affordable option. For some items, the Groupon venue may end up to be a better buy, but for others, the same items could cost about the same or even slightly more.

The original offer only told users that they'd receive $50 worth of inventory for $10, without any mention of other discounts. The Vistaprint mirror for Groupon says, "Groupon members, Enjoy $50 of products + 30% off all products site-wide!" But that 30 percent figure was added for the mirror -- it was not a part of the initial deal, nor is it always materially cheaper than other deals on Vistaprint's main site.

Customers who believed that the Groupon deal would apply to the discount rates they found on the original site might end up paying a different amount than they'd anticipated on purchase. After all, for the first day or so, the original offer had a link that went to Vistaprint's original site, not the dedicated Groupon site with its own prices and also stated that "This Groupon is valid for any item on the website, including sale items."

Though it's unclear who was responsible for the change in discount amounts between Vistaprint and Groupon, some experts suggest that Groupon is responsible for ensuring that merchants' practices regarding pricing stay consistent with customer expectations.

"The burden has to fall on Groupon. If they want to maintain integrity, they have to make sure the merchant doesn't bamboozle them or their customers," said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at the market research firm Forrester. Mulpuru said such incidents may lead to customer service complaints and wider trust issues. "Customers can become skeptical of repeat purchases," she said.

Some irritated users have already obtained refunds from Groupon for the initial $10 cost of the deal. Others have contacted Vistaprint to receive refunds on a faulty free-shipping promotion.

The entire snafu recalls Groupon's headache over a Valentine's Day deal with the florist company FTD, which infuriated some Groupon customers who had to pay non-sale prices on sale items for their deal. In this case, sale prices are eligible for the offer -- but they're different sale prices.

"Either consumers are just not going to care or not notice -- if that happens, you'll see more of this in the future," said Mulpuru, "or it'll raise a huge stink, and force a lot stricter restrictions around how offers are offered and the parameters around what's allowed or not allowed."

A Groupon representative declined to comment for this story.

UPDATE: A Groupon has responded in the comment section regarding this deal:

For those customers who purchased this deal, we have been working closely with Vistaprint to resolve concerns and wanted to address them with you. We strive to make our deals as straightfo­rward and as simple as possible to understand and in this case Vistaprint­'s redemption website for Groupon customers displayed some pricing discrepanc­ies when compared to the original link provided. Vistaprint is dedicated to satisfying everyone who purchased this deal and as a result increased the discount on the Groupon redemption page, which is now 50% off every item (this is on the price before the Groupon is applied). We hope that combining this discount with the $10 for $50 that you received with your Groupon will exceed your expectatio­ns. If anyone who purchased this Groupon is unhappy with this solution, please contact us at support@gr­ and we’ll be happy to issue a refund. We apologize for the difficulty and frustratio­n this may have caused.

Mark Desky
VP, Marketing