Fishing for a deal on group-buying Web sites

Group-buying Web sites have launched a worldwide Internet craze — online shoppers can't get enough of getting more for a whole lot less. With the holiday buying season upon us, the sites also are a unique alternative to traditional online shopping at a time when consumerism especially picks up.

The idea is simple: provide your e-mail address, receive e-mails with deals of the day, and click "buy" if you like it. Discounts are often as much as 50 percent, and climb from there (70, 80 even 90 percent off). Some deals are offered on merchandise, but many of the offers are for services, restaurants and cultural events. They include things like spa treatments, wine flights and hot air balloon rides.

A recent selection of deals from the site Groupon, which launched Nov. 1 in Lexington, included deals at Saul Good Restaurant and Pub, Talon Winery, The Morris Book Shop, The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky and BounceU.

But don't confuse these sites with Web coupons, which you redeem when you make your purchase at the store. Similar to a gift card, here you're actually purchasing the deal from the group-buying sites, which also include Dealster. You then receive a voucher to exchange for your pre-paid merchandise or services.

Most sites will not charge your card immediately — a certain number of customers have to "buy" the deal for it to be activated. In most cases, if that number is not reached, the deal is canceled and no one is charged. If the deal does go through, you receive your voucher either by e-mail or traditional mail within a day or two. From there, it's go, redeem and enjoy.

The vast majority of group-buying sites allow buyers to gift many or all of the deal vouchers featured. Some sites also allow you to buy personalized gift cards with a specified amount of credit so that friends or family members can log on to the group-buying site and purchase the deal that appeals most to them.

Some say the group-buying phenomenon is a win-win for customers and businesses, but others disagree, particularly noting the adverse effects mass buying can have on budding businesses.