A Chicago Retailer is Skeptical of Services Like Groupon

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Shelley Young is the chef and founder behind The Chopping Block, a recreational cooking school and retail store in Chicago. Since opening her doors in 1997, Young has seen a dramatic change in the advertising landscape. Whereas she once employed a publicist, she now manages multiple social media accounts in-house and offers check-in specials on Foursquare. She remains skeptical about the long-term viability of daily discount sites.

What does your business do?

The Chopping Block is a recreational cooking school. The main component of our business is our recreational cooking classes, which means that we teach classes to people who don’t necessarily want to become a chef. We do events, and we can do anything a hotel or restaurant can do – but with an interactive component. We also have a gourmet cookware shop, which means we sell cookware ingredients and things like that.

What are the main ways that you attract customers?

Well, I think it has always been word of mouth. We’re a niche business, so people talk about it because it’s unusual. We have a lot of loyal customers who talk about their experience here, so certainly word of mouth is important. We’ve also been very active with PR and social networking. These days, social networking is really just a combination of PR and word of mouth.

What made you decide to jump into social media?

We really started utilizing social media because we had a publicist for years – she was an amazing publicist. She came to us and told us that the old type of marketing wasn’t working anymore. So, she basically fired herself. She had decided that traditional PR doesn’t work anymore, and she told us that we needed to get into social media for ourselves. She recommended that we take our PR in-house, and we really started socially networking at that time. That was 3 years ago. We started using Facebook and Twitter at the same time, and then we began using Foursquare after it was launched in New York.

What has been the reaction for your check-in specials on Foursquare?

Well, people aren’t beating down the doors because of our Foursquare specials. [The Chopping Block offers a free glass of wine for first-time check-ins, and the “Mayor,” a Foursquare designation for frequent customers, receives a free bottle of wine when taking a cooking class.] I think Foursquare is a tool that might be a little bit more appropriate for a restaurant or a bar than for a recreational cooking school. But, we’re a hybrid business, and we’re a niche business, so we’re taking something out there and modifying it to what makes sense for us and our customers.

What are your views on daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social?

We just did our first one recently [on a site called Mamapedia], but we’re still waiting to see how that goes. The only reason we did it was because it was a very specific demographic that we were going after. We were really looking for daytime moms to build our daytime classes, so we thought we’d try Mamapedia. But so far, I don’t know that it’s going to be a real help for us. But we’ll see. It’s too soon to tell.

I probably won’t do another one, though. I appreciate that these sites are wildly popular, and people think I’m nuts for not participating in them more, but I don’t understand how people think they will be helpful for the businesses themselves – unless you’re a business owner who is just starting out and people don’t know who you are at all. The economics just don’t make any sense.

I think people feel pressured to be part of it. It doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. We can’t afford to give the kind of a discount that they ask on our classes. I don’t know what kind of margins people are getting out of the business, but we’d be losing money on every transaction. I’m not sure how people think that will ever help them.

So for me, and our business model, daily discount sites don’t work and I don’t have interest in them. I really don’t think they’ll be around that long. I think what’s going to happen is the customers will always like it, but after a while the businesses are going to be like, “You know, this isn’t working for us.”

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.