Selling restaurant reservations at a discount

Martin Lariviere

By Martin Lariviere, The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Source: The Operations Room.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Groupon promotions can create operational headaches for participating service providers. In short Groupon coupons drive traffic but service providers can be easily overwhelmed, making it hard for new and current customers to make appointments for service. Now the New York Times reports on VillageVines, an alternative site that provides local promotion support (Pay Full Price for a Meal? That’s So Yesterday, Sep 8).

Like Groupon, VillageVines makes deals available on-line for registered uders. However, there are important differences. First, VillageVines specializes in restaurants as opposed to covering the waterfront from apparel boutiques to salons. Second, they don’t sell coupons but reservations.

With VillageVines, registered users get a daily e-mail and pay $10 for a reservation, which they book through the site or through MenuPages.com, thanks to a new partnership. They get a discount, usually 30 percent off their bill.

The distinction between coupons and reservations may seem trivial but it actually makes a real difference. For customers, there is no need to print and remember to carry the coupon. The discount is in the firm’s reservation system and should be taken automatically. Certainly, a classier way to handle getting a discount when on a first date.

The bigger issue is how this solves problems for the restaurant. Because customers are buying reservations they have to pick a date and time before they fork over their $10. Consequently, the firm can shape the demand they get by limiting the number of reservations they give out and specifying when the discounts can be used. If the existing customer base does not fill up the house on Tuesday evening, that’s when you offer reservations on VillageVines. Further, customers know what they are buying. This scheme eliminates customers buying a discount only to find they can’t get an appointment for two months.

So this is a very clever solution to the issues that have arisen with Groupon. Of course, from the member’s perspective it doesn’t replace Groupon. Here you only get restaurants so if you are more interested in apparel shops it doesn’t do much for you. The question is whether this format can be easily carried over to other settings. I am not sure that it can. This works for restaurants because on-line reservation systems exist on a common platform and are integrated with other restaurant systems. There is no such standard approach for other local services — even those that commonly use appointments. Part of that is because people don’t generally shop around for dentists and barbers the same way. People generally like variety in eating so there is a benefit to having one site that allows access to a variety of firms. On the other hand, most  customers are happy to deal with one dentist and one barber once they identify a good alternative.  I don’t see what a hair salon gains from putting its appointment book on a common platform with other salons. Without  that common platform, this becomes a difficult system to implement.

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