Staff at the DoubleTree New Orleans were surprised to learn a website offered a free entree (with purchase of another at equal or greater value) for Lafitte’s, the hotel’s restaurant. They were surprised not only because they have never heard of BigTip.com nor did they approve any coupon deal it offered, but Lafitte’s closed more than a year ago. (It’s now a WOW Wingery.)
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 other services. BigTip lists former Yahoo! employees Matt Rowlen and George Bremer as its CEO and CFO, respectively. To score the deals, users must purchase a monthly “Gold Pass” for $5.99 a month, or $2.99 a month with an annual plan. Users can also 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 Saturday, Dec. 1, KATC-TV in Lafayette reported that several businesses there “didn’t know anything” about the website despite it offering several “deals.” KATC ran the story with the headline “Bigtip.com Scams Customers and Business Owners” — on Monday, Dec. 3, it changed to “Some businesses say coupons won’t be honored from Bigtip.com.”
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. 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. 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 spokesperson Bill Daddi said Entertainment provided only "daily deals" to the site — not promotions offered through an annual membership with the Entertainment coupon books. Daddi said the company ended its relationship with BigTip earlier this year. “They are not working with them now,” he said.
In a 2011 press release for the website’s soft launch, the company’s executive vice president of business development Chris Matty said, “In this deal space, it’s evident that there’s virtually no barrier to entry — but tremendous barriers to scale. 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.”
Accompanied by generic stock photos, among the deals listed in New Orleans: free entry (with purchase of another) to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, a free ticket (with purchase of another) at Southern Rep, waived joining fee at Downtown Fitness Center, and a free ticket (with purchase of another) at The Prytania Theatre. When contacted by Gambit, those businesses were not aware of the website offering the deal. (BigTip also offers a buy-one-get-one-free deal for Saltwater Grill in the Riverbend, which closed earlier this year. That location is now Milk Bar.)
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 Living Social. “Normally they send you a contract. It’s not something you authorize over the phone,” she said. “(Groupon and Living Social) 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 the museum does offer deals through coupon books but 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.”
Rowlen added that BigTip will supply a refund if the customer has not or is not able to redeem an offer.
Cynthia Albert with the New Orleans chapter of the Better Business Bureau points to the company’s BBB profile — it received an “F” for its failure to respond to two complaints filed against the business in 2012. The report also noted 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.”
When KATC posted the report on its website, it spread to Twitter and Facebook. On Monday, Dec. 3, WRBZ-TV in Baton Rouge ran a version of the story interviewing Baton Rouge businesses. On Sunday, Dec. 2, a Facebook user named “Matt Scoble” joined Facebook then immediately posted a link to KATC's 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.”
The account’s user photo belongs to Matt Cutts, who heads webspam at Google.