Groupon (GRPN), in its search for new avenues of growth, has announced a restaurant-booking service to directly take on OpenTable (OPEN), the dominant player in the space.
The Groupon offering, called Groupon Reserve, unsurprisingly will provide steep discounts in addition to allowing customers to make reservations. For now, the service will be available in 10 major cities including Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
GRPN will be facing off against OpenTable, which has become the top-of-mind brand for restaurant bookings. The North American installed restaurant base is more than 20,000, as well as another 7,800-plus in foreign markets.
There are a couple interesting wrinkles to Groupon’s service. For one, Groupon Reserve will focus on higher-end venues, including top operators such as NYC’s Le Cirque, Chaya Brasserie in Los Angeles and Miami’s db Bistro Moderne. While restaurants are the main target now, GRPN does expect to expand the service to hotels, spas and other services.
Also, customers won’t have to buy any vouchers; instead, the discounts will be automatically taken off the bill. This is a significant turn from Groupon’s original business model, which was based upon selling vouchers to customers, then splitting revenues with the merchants. (A model that eventually proved unpopular.)
Of course, this isn’t the only way GRPN has been trying to reinvent its own wheel; it also has been moving away from daily emails, considered spammy by most, to a search-engine approach.
Groupon’s new vision ultimately is to move away from simply handing out deals and toward becoming a marketplace for them.
While it’s easy to shy away from a company admitting that it’s clearly not doing things right, GRPN still has some base advantages that could make its changes stick. The company still boasts more than 40 million customers, and it boasts both more than 4,000 sales people and a thriving mobile platform. The company’s app was downloaded more than 7 million times in the most recent quarter (totaling 40 million downloads period), and just less than half the company’s transactions are made from mobile devices.
Investors still might want to proceed with caution, however. Groupon currently trades at 29 times next year’s earnings, with Wall Street seemingly already factoring in success from its business transformation. But as the past has shown, companies rarely ride a bumpless road when they change their business models.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook. He is also the author of High-Profit IPO Strategies, All About Commodities and All About Short Selling. Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.