Online coupon business targets small-town markets

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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 that launched in the Walla Walla market June 13 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.

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.

The site was marketed on Facebook and Twitter, luring visitors to its pages in part through a drawing for a $250 gas card. Its inaugural service -- $30 mani/pedis from Impress Salon at a cost of $15 -- sold out in less than 24 hours.

Impress owner Jan Corn said she specifically kept the number of deals available at a manageable 10, large enough to attract new clients but not so large it would overwhelm the business.

If there's one thing a participating business doesn't want, it's being so inundated that it can't provide quality customer service. And that, after all, is the goal. It's what Corn had 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.," she marveled. "And then I came back and realized it isn't here."

Deals on Corn's goods and services are expected to be featured every few days or so. Most deals are offered for 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 of the actual item.

For the uninitiated, a group-buying organization works with businesses to offer deep discounts. Consumers are alerted of the deals through email updates after signing on with the site. The deal is offered for a limited time. A minimum number of the items must be sold to activate the deal.

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

If the concept sounds familiar it may be because of a similar 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 and publishing, and California business partner Scott Slater. The intent is to offer group buying to an array of small West Coast markets.

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