If you're looking for Christmas deals, read the small print

Websites offering cheap group buying, cashback and other offers should not be taken at face value

Alarmingly, the Christmas countdown is now on, but this year shoppers and revellers are thinking increasingly strategically, taking advantage of the full range of group-buying, cashback and voucher code sites to ensure a savvy spend on everything from gifts to a night out in the West End or even a timely escape from it all.

In reality, though, restrictions and hidden extras on these offers are leaving many consumers out of pocket in the most expensive month of the year.

There's no doubting the success of daily deals sites which base their model on collective buying power, securing special offers and discounts for goods and services on the proviso that a minimum number of sales – known as the tipping point – is met. Typically consumers have anything from a few hours to a few days to grab the deal and if the tipping point isn't met, the offer is withdrawn and there is no financial obligation to go through with the purchase.

It has been full steam ahead for group-buying websites such as Groupon, the fastest growing company ever, according to Forbes, in recent years. The model is such a success that copy-cat sites from the likes of Time Out, eBay and even Google have sprung up.

In theory, everybody wins; the retailers are guaranteed a particular level of custom and consumers are rewarded with a cheaper deal.

The reality, however, can be quite different. Despite impressive savings of up to 95 per cent being touted, these sites have come under heavy criticism for misleading customers and after going public last year, Groupon's stock has plummeted back to earth.

We all love a bargain, but complaints about the four major group discount sites, Groupon, LivingSocial, kgbdeals and Wowcher, have soared from 241 in the nine months to the end of September to 391 over the same period this year, with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) warning of fines if things don't improve.

Indeed, Groupon's trading practices have gained the unwanted attention of the regulator, leading to an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading last year, which found the company to be in breach of various consumer protection regulations. The OFT had particular concerns over reference pricing (inaccurately comparing original prices against sale prices), advertising, refunds and unfair terms.

But Roy Blanga, the company's UK managing director, says: "As a young and innovative business, Groupon acknowledges that our processes and procedures have not always kept pace with our rapid growth. We have worked transparently and constructively with the OFT to identify areas that require further changes. The OFT is pleased with the steps we have taken and the progress that has been made. We are willingly implementing these changes".

The consumer group Which? recently found after monitoring 165 deals from six of the most popular group-buying sites, four out of five West End theatre ticket offers could be found cheaper elsewhere. Sites were also advertising discounts based on the absolute maximum payable (particularly for meals and beauty treatments) and other deals advertised did not include various extras. One deal, offering a week for two in a four-star resort in Sardinia at £529 per person (including Ryanair flights from Stansted) via Groupon, didn't include hold luggage (potentially adding an extra £140 for a couple) or the transfer costs to the resort in Olbia (Which? were quoted £375 by a private-hire firm for both journeys).

"Group-buying sites can offer genuine savings, but they should be used with caution. We want these sites to be much more transparent about how they calculate their discounts and clearly state any additional fees that might be included," says James Daley, of Which?.

Restrictions can also be tricky, for example, meal deals are often limited to particular courses and you may only be able to dine on certain days and times. Again, extras for sides and drinks are common, all of which combine to make it a concerted effort to calculate whether any given deal is really as good as it seems.

You can always ask the websites themselves for more detailed information but even here you can come unstuck – Which? found that getting a speedy response about a 24-hour deal was a tall order with only Groupon and Happli answering within two hours. KGBdeals, Wahanda and Living Social waited to respond until the deal had expired, and Wowcher failed to respond for over a week.

Group-buying sites aren't the only tools for online shoppers; price comparison sites, voucher codes, members-only discounts and cashback sites are also immensely popular but again, it can be difficult to work out whether you really are getting the best price.

Although some can save you money, the ASA has been forced to ban numerous promotions that either simply don't exist or have been grossly exaggerated. Others offer the same deals you would get by going directly to the retailer, or vague details and awkward restrictions, and some will tie you in to a cheap deal and then force you to sign up to buy further items.

It's also worth remembering that sites such as Groupon generate profits by keeping a chunk of the money that the customer pays for any goods and services. That could mean you'll do better by cutting out the middle man – economy of scale or not.

Meanwhile, alongside affiliate marketing and lead generation, voucher code websites often generate revenue by selling data about the trends and shoppers they collect when you log on and click through, which could include your personal details if you're not exceptionally careful about unclicking those tiny boxes hidden at the bottom of the online form.

Plus, of course, there's the age old problem of spending money you hadn't planned just to secure a "cost-saving" deal.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    BC2

    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

    Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

    £300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

    (Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

    Finance Officer

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education are seeking a Fi...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice