LivingSocial brings yield management to small businesses

LivingSocial is testing a new product that allows businesses to offer real-time discounts to local consumers, according to AllThingsD.

LivingSocial’s existing product works much like Groupon. You sign up for a deal and typically purchase goods or services for half off the retail value. These deals can be redeemed over a 3- to 12-month period, depending on the deal.

While some have called these deals yield management tools, they’ve actually just been customer acquisition tools. In fact, some businesses have been so overwhelmed by these offers that they’ve had to hire extra staff to handle the influx of new customers. Some undoubtedly have had to turn away full-price customers to service the discounted customers. One of the challenges businesses have faced is that although they’re seeing new customers, those customers are getting a bad impression because the business is overwhelmed.

The key to effective yield management is to shift demand to when you have excess capacity and to charge a premium for the times that are at highest capacity.

Many small businesses already do this. Happy hours at bars are a simple example of yield management. Come in from 3 to 6 and drink for half price. There’s a high fixed cost (staff is already there, rent, electricity). As long as you cover the marginal costs of food and drink, you can generate extra profit during that otherwise dead time.

This could prove to be a boon to businesses who need to generate extra business quickly. For example, a spa that finds itself with massage therapists with a slack appointment book could send out a 1-day only deal.

While the details of Living Social’s implementation aren’t out yet, here are some things I’d like to see:

  • Ability for the business to control the amount of offers that are available. You don’t want to go from a situation where you’ve got a lot of spare capacity to one where you’re overwhelmed by demand. A limit would also create incentives for users to claim an offer quickly.
  • Ability to more narrowly target customers. The current regions are too large to ensure that the customers reached are likely to be repeat customers.
  • Ability to target specific products. Chicken moving slower than beef tonight? Half off chicken dinners!
  • Ability to exclude customers who are too close. You don’t want to offer discounts to people who are already at your business.

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