Erica Brown

My Gateway Drug: Groupon

My teenage son calls Groupon my gateway drug.

What’s not to love? An unexpected adventure at a bargain price with a time deadline. It is addictive. We’ve painted pottery, done $40 of glow-in-the-dark bowling for $20 (the way we bowl, it can only help), and bought hotel vacation vouchers. I sent my husband off on a father-and-son fishing trip for his birthday. I have not, however, bought the tandem skydiving package with T-shirts yet, but am debating. Sadly, I have only 20 days to use my 10-class Jazzercise Groupon before it expires. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I spoke with a Groupon vendor who said that when she finally caved into the pressure to use Groupon for advertising, she had 1,200 responses within three days. Someone she works with had a similar story, and was so overwhelmed by demand she could not handle that she closed up shop, took the money and has not been seen since.

I am still waiting for the Groupon for Jewish education, kosher meat and shul membership. Sadly, they never pop up on my computer. Ever notice how most of what is sold at a discount online is usually something we never really needed. Luxury items and services like the hot stone, seaweed and motor oil massage done at a high altitude is not where most of our monthly household budgets go. Some of us would just appreciate a little break on the values-based services that cost us a fortune. Many of us who just want to be good people and good Jews would love a little help.

For a while, I was hopeful when I heard about Jewpon. There were occasional breaks on food and kosher restaurants, but you were more likely to find Dead Sea facial mud and designer modesty skirts there than anything you really needed. I came close to buying the 40-day prayer request at The Wall deal for $99. Someone will pray for anything you want for 40 whole days — the same amount of time that Noah was in the ark and that Moses was at Sinai. Not bad. It felt biblically authentic and was a considerable savings on the retail price. I stopped myself, however, when I saw that the exclusive prayer package was $399, and no coupons were available. When it comes to prayer, it pays to fly business class, not economy. I’ll just have to get a flight and take the summer off.

Someone is saying Kaddish for Jewpon today. When you click on Jewpon, it says “Oops. This site is currently unavailable.”

You can argue that Birthright, PJ Library and similar smaller partially- or fully-funded programs are the Jewish equivalent of Groupon today. Like Groupon, they give you something at cut-rate to induce you to become a regular. If we give you a free 10-day trip to Israel or free books every month, perhaps we can get you to take your own Jewish identity seriously. We have compelling research that indicates this method has garnered success. These are remarkable programs. If free is the right price, and we can make it cheap enough to get you to participate in Jewish life, perhaps you’ll buy into it.

But here’s the snag. The vendor I spoke with said that she has lots of Groupon addicts who she will never see again. They have no intention of paying full price. They’ll just move on to another coupon. Only a small fraction will take the inducement and come back regularly. The people who use services loyally tend not to get a break at all. They would come back even without a discount.

We are full-paying members of the Jewish community, and you can count on our commitment. We work very hard to send our kids to day school and live an active Jewish life. It does not come at a bargain basement price. I’m skeptical that rewarding those who are not willing to make the sacrifice creates true loyalty or deep participation across the lifespan.

I’m increasingly unsure we should keep giving coupons to people who may not need them but won’t join without them. When we reward those with Groupon-like addictions, we may be implicitly telling our loyal customers who pay full freight that they are not as important to us. It’s the difference between Groupon and frequent flier miles. Today you expect something for your loyalty; most businesses understand that. Where, Oh where, Jewish community, is the rewards program for your most loyal customers?

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).