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Coupon bugged

Alex Woodward on a Seattle-based company offering discounts on New Orleans businesses -- but shouldn't someone tell the businesses?

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BigTip.com offers a "guaranteed" buy-one get-one-free entree deal at Lafitte's, a New Orleans restaurant that closed more than a year ago.

When a website offered a free entree (with purchase of another at equal or greater value) for Lafitte's, a restaurant in the CBD hotel DoubleTree by Hilton, the staff was taken aback. They were surprised not only because they have never heard of the website BigTip.com, nor did they approve any coupon deal it offered — but also because Lafitte's closed more than a year ago.

  BigTip.com is a Seattle-based online discount site offering "100,000 discounts in 6,000 markets nationwide," including more than 750 deals in New Orleans for restaurants, museums, retail stores, gyms and more. BigTip lists former Yahoo! employees Matt Rowlen and George Bremer as its CEO and CFO, respectively. To score the deals, users purchase a monthly "Gold Pass" for $5.99 a month, or $2.99 a month with an annual plan. Users also can purchase a one-time annual membership for $36.99. BigTip's website says its deals are "100% Guaranteed" and that "If you are not happy with your purchase, BigTip will make it right or give you your money back."

  On Dec. 1, KATC-TV in Lafayette reported that several businesses in that city "didn't know anything" about the website despite it offering several "deals" around Acadiana. Gambit called half a dozen New Orleans businesses listed on BigTip.com. None of them had heard of the site.

  Among the deals listed in New Orleans (all illustrated with generic stock photos): free entry with the purchase of another admission to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, a free ticket with purchase of another at Southern Rep, a waived joining fee at Downtown Fitness Center and a free ticket with purchase of another at the Prytania Theater. All of those businesses told Gambit they were unaware of the offer. (BigTip also offers a buy-one-get-one-free deal for Saltwater Grill in the Riverbend, which closed earlier this year.)

In a 2011 news release for BigTip.com's soft launch, Chris Matty, executive vice president of business development, differentiated his company from daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. "In this deal space, it's evident that there's virtually no barrier to entry — but tremendous barriers to scale," he said. "The sophistication of our technology breaks through these barriers. We don't believe delivering a single deal a day in a major market best serves consumers or merchants. We're able to offer consumers a greater selection of more relevant deals and allow many more merchants to promote their offers."

  The release said BigTip partners with local coupon magazines and other coupon dealers to "(deliver) digital solutions that offer growth and breathe new life into an industry with a notoriously bleak future."

  In an email to Gambit, Rowlen said the KATC report was "grossly inaccurate" and explained that BigTip aggregates offers from hundreds of partners, which don't necessarily tell businesses where they promote their deals. "While we offer merchants the ability to create their own deals via our website, most of our offers come from third parties which we in turn promote," Rowlen wrote. "All vouchers from our site clearly specifies the source of the offer. If there is a question about a deal, we will often pull the offer and notify our partners of a specific merchant concern.

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  "As it relates to the merchants in question, it appears the source is Entertainment Publications. Entertainment has been in the small business community for 50 years and is one of our many valued partners. Unfortunately, with more than 100,000 offers they have been unable to tell all merchants the different ways they are promoting their offers online. ... this includes through BigTip.com."

  Entertainment Publications publishes coupon books that are resold by schools and nonprofit organizations. Entertainment Publications spokesman Bill Daddi said his company used to provide daily deals to BigTip.com — but not ongoing promotions offered through an annual membership with the entertainment coupon books.

  Doddi added that Entertainment is still technically under an agreement with BigTip, but their relationship terminates Jan. 6, 2013.

Cliff Bergeron, co-owner of Downtown Fitness, said he has offered deals through sites like Groupon, but has never heard of BigTip. "No one is authorized to offer (a coupon) except me and the staff," he said.

  Southern Food and Beverage Museum Director Liz Williams also has worked through Groupon, as well as LivingSocial. "Normally they send you a contract," she says. "It's not something you authorize over the phone. (Groupon and LivingSocial) both have a written agreement. You approve all language they use, and they send you a mock up of the page before it goes up." Williams added that the museum does offer deals through coupon books, but she said she was not aware if it shared the deal with BigTip.

  "Merchants have contractual agreements with our partners to honor their promoted offers," Rowlen wrote in an email to Gambit. "While merchant acceptance is obviously out of our control, all of our partners have agreements with the merchants for the offers they supply us. If a merchant or consumer does not recognize the offer or has an issue, there is clear communication on the voucher itself to call the supplying partner for resolution."

  He added that BigTip will supply a refund if the customer has not or is not able to redeem an offer.

  Cynthia Albert of the New Orleans chapter of the Better Business Bureau points to BigTip's BBB profile: It received an "F" for its failure to respond to two complaints filed against it in 2012. The report also notes that the "BBB made two or more requests for background information from the business. BBB has not received a response from this business and/or has not been able to verify information received from this business."

  One day after KATC posted the report on its website and reposted it to Facebook, a "Matt Scoble" joined Facebook, posting a link to the story with the comment, "Did anyone have the common sense to actually look at the vouchers? I've used bigtip numerous times. They aggregate offers ... in all the cases mentioned the deals came from Entertainment Publications. A company that has been around for 50 years."

  Scoble had joined Facebook that day. The account's user photo belongs to Matt Cutts, who heads the webspam division at Google.

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