Group-buying site hones in on small markets

Local Thrifty Walla Walla Valley, set to launch Monday, aims to hook businesses up with deal-seeking customers.

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WALLA WALLA - If June Cleaver had a career in e-commerce, it might look a little like Local Thrifty.

The new group-buying site poised for launch in the Walla Walla market Monday is designed as if a 1950s television mother were speaking to you - from the vintage font on the Local Thrifty Walla Walla Valley site to the "nifty" deal activation status.

The motif is just one aspect of the custom site, a hyper-local version of the nationwide group-buying concept that reaches consumer masses everywhere else except small, off-the-beaten-path markets such as Walla Walla, explained Local Thrifty President Jeremy Gonzalez during a recent interview at Olive Marketplace & Caf.

Similar to the mega-sized group-buying sites like Groupon or LivingSocial, Local Thrifty Walla Walla Valley partners with local businesses to offer deep discounts on goods and services. But in this case, all of the business comes from Walla Walla Valley companies.

For weeks, the site has been marketed on Facebook and Twitter, luring visitors to its pages in part through a drawing for a $250 gas card. Originally slated to launch June 22, the site will go live Monday.

Up first: Ten mani/pedis from Impress Salon. The service is valued at $30, but will be sold for $15 each to kick off the Local Thrifty launch.

The relatively small number is the perfect size, said Impress owner Jan Corn. It's enough to attract new clients, which is her ultimate goal. But it's not so many that the business could be overwhelmed. If there's one thing a participating business doesn't want, it's being so inundated that it can't provide the quality of service that would make the customer want to come back. And that, after all, is the goal. It's what Corn has most been looking forward to since hearing about the online bulk-buying concept offered in larger metropolitan areas.

"About a year ago I started hearing from professional friends and associates in the Seattle area about Groupon and just how popular it is there. It's just huge," she marveled. "And then I came back and realized it isn't here."

Deals on goods and services - from Corn's mani/pedis to restaurant deals and home improvement services - are expected to be featured every few days or so. Most deals will run 48 hours, but higher-priced items will likely be offered for longer, Gonzalez said. Most deals will also run in the $12-$30 range - typically half the retail value.

For the uninitiated, the group-buying concept looks like this: A group-buying organization works with businesses to offer deeply discounted deals. Consumers are alerted of the deals through email updates after signing on with the site. The deal is offered for a limited period of time. A minimum number of the items must be sold in order to activate the deal.

For Local Thrifty followers, once the deal has been activated, the consumer's credit card is charged for the item. The buyer will receive an automated email within 24 hours. The email, known as the "Thrift Ticket," is a printable voucher that can be taken to the merchant for redemption. If the deal isn't activated, the credit card will not be charged.

If the concept sounds familiar it's because it is. Another local site, Sow Social, launched late last year but has experienced hiccups due to personal tragedies. The site has recently gone live again, said owner Tami Arias.

The idea has been a phenomenal success for Groupon, which turned down a $6 billion offer from Google last year to buy the business and has since filed for an initial public offering. The concept appeals both to consumers' sense of frugality during tough times but also to basic needs for services and an interest in exploring new businesses.

Local Thrifty was developed by Gonzalez, 35, a marketing professional who's worked in radio, television, publishing and newspaper, and California business partner Scott Slater. The intent is to offer group buying to an array of small West Coast markets. They've already launched in Vacaville, Calif., and the Columbia Gorge, which includes Hood River, The Dalles and small surrounding communities.

Walla Walla will be the third market, but not the last. Four other markets are expected to launch after Walla Walla. Incidentally, Local Thrifty also hopes to drive funds for local charities in each market, too. Operators will donate $1 to various charities - Embracing Orphans locally - for those who type in a promotional code on the site.

Gonzalez said the business model offers all of the benefits of online shopping for the consumer while also supporting local shops.

"A lot of Internet-buying these days takes money away from the local economy," he said. "Our business is online but we're driving money back into the local economy."

The model has added another dimension to the way businesses market themselves. What they lose up front in the discounts and in sharing the remaining revenue with their Web-based partners, they stand to make up long-term by building relationships with new customers enticed by the savings.

The concept isn't for everybody, Gonzalez acknowledged. The Web is full of stories from businesses that were burned by group-buying - from those unable to handle the mass response to the deals to people not coming back after they got their bargain.

"If I could say one thing to the consumer it would be to respect that the business just went out of its way to get you in the door to try their product," he said.

At the end of the day, the experience the consumer has at each business will ultimately determine whether a return visit will be made.

"Our job is to get (customers) in the door," Gonzalez said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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