Are Britons still on the hunt for a bargain or have we finally fallen out of love with voucher codes? As the economy hit the skids in 2008, the UK went discount mad as a way to stretch ever-tightening budgets. Nobody would even think about visiting Pizza Express midweek without first printing off a voucher.
As a result, a huge array of voucher code websites such as Vouchercodes.co.uk and group buying sites such as Groupon and Living Social – which work by offering cheap deals as a certain number of buyers snap up the deal – started popping up. The voucher game has become big business.
There's no disputing their popularity, either. In fact, we like vouchers so much that research by Webloyalty has found that half (47%) of Brits have now used discount vouchers, with 30% of us using them for leisure activities, such as going to the cinema, while 28% have used them to book a holiday.
However, it's possible to have too much of a good thing. And some consumers are experiencing a certain sense of voucher fatigue. A lot of the sites are filled with special offers for things we often don't need or want very often - such as teeth whitening, carpet cleaning and spray tans. Last year, Groupon came under fire from the Office of Fair Trading for breaching consumer protection rules to do with pricing, false advertising and its refund policy, and was told to clean up its act.
With the voucher market now flooded with offers and deals, are consumers starting to turn their back on the discount sites? Well, it's certainly the case that some consumers have had enough of being repeatedly sent information about potential deals and vouchers.
One of them is Antonio Fersini, 36, a web manager from north London, who feels enough is enough with offers and vouchers. He said: "I'm fed up with the usual ‘clean your teeth' or ‘make your smile whiter' promotions. I get bombarded with them. The deals aren't relevant to me any more and they always seem like the same thing."
He added: "I used to use the deals a few times, but then I think that for some of them you get worse service because the restaurants or whoever know you're on a deal. I would only use it for a product I can buy rather than a service."
Others are frustrated by poor levels of product quality or customer service that seems to be triggered by purchasing via vouchers or discounts. These days, so many of us are used to watching waiters roll their eyes when we reach for the voucher before divvying up the food bill. Another source of frustration is that deals are also, in many cases, only available on certain days or for a very short space of time, so it can be tricky to use a voucher before it expires.
Neil Saunders, managing director at retail research company Conlumino says that while voucher codes remain popular, he believes people are getting pickier. "There has been a proliferation of such sites, and I think that means most people are fairly selective about the ones they use. In other words, while some sites have benefited from the general trend of austerity, not all have been so fortunate."
This is because the way we look for deals is changing, he explains. "The big sites remain popular, although they are having to increasingly fight to hold on to their share and to fend off competition from generalist sites that also offer vouchers and codes."
Barclaycard made its entrance to the voucher market last May, when it tried to shake things up with the launch of Barclaycard Bespoke, its own discount website. Barclaycard's chief executive claimed its ‘bespoke' offers that are tailored to individual users based on ‘lifestyle factors' they can select – such as where they live and areas of interest, as well as their purchase history – could save them £2,100 a year.
However, a Moneywise investigation found many of the offers from Barclaycard at the time of the launch – such as buy a £10 Starbucks Card for £5 – were almost identical as those available on other voucher sites, such as Groupon and LivingSocial. And Sarah Pennells, founder of SavvyWoman.co.uk, told Moneywise: "You'd have to spend around £15,000 to make those savings."
To obtain one of its launch travel deals – 6% off Virgin Holidays when you upgrade to Premium Economy or Upper Class – users would have had to fork out thousands in return for a discount worth just a few hundred pounds. A Virgin Holidays representative told Moneywise it would cost up to £3,000 to upgrade a family of four's return flights to Florida to Premium Economy. The extra outlay of £3,000, on top of the initial holiday cost of around £4,000, would see the family recoup just £400 of that, using the Bespoke deal.
"Many people are finding it hard enough to pay for the essentials, never mind splashing out on treats and it's not very savvy to buy something – no matter how much you'll save – if you don't need or can't afford in the first place," Pennells said – something we should all bear in mind any time we're tempted by a discount.
Growing power of apps
However, the voucher market has improved elsewhere. One area in which it is changing dramatically and for the better is through mobile phone apps. This is allowing smartphone users to access discounts or vouchers on the move, conveniently allowing them to find nearby offers.
Saunders says: "There has been a growing trend for consumers to use apps on the fly to access voucher codes when out and about. This is linked to geo-location technology, which means that people are able to see only those vouchers that are relevant to their vicinity."
Emma Morris, shopping and vouchers expert at Moneysupermarket, believes finding deals through apps offers consumers a fresh approach. She says: "It's all about making things easier for people – whether they're looking for a cheap coffee or haircut, or a deal on a pair of shoes."