Groupon Inc.’s joint venture in China has closed offices in some cities and laid off hundreds of employees, according to people familiar with the situation, raising questions about the online coupon company’s strategy in a big market ahead of its planned initial public offering.
Former and current employees of the Chinese joint venture, which operates the website Gaopeng.com, say more than 10 offices around China have been closed, including one in the northern city of Tangshan where an employee said he and his co-workers were locked out last Friday after their lunch break just after being notified of the shutdown.
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“They’ve been firing people for at least three months,” said the staffer, James Liu, a photographer for GaoPeng.
A Chinese lawyer representing some disgruntled former GaoPeng employees estimated about 400 people have been fired so far, a number that couldn’t be confirmed.
The moves appears to mark an abrupt reversal of Groupon’s aggressive expansion into China just eight months ago. Since January, Groupon has invested $8.6 million for a 40% stake in the GaoPeng joint venture, which is also funded by Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and private-equity firm Yunfeng Capital.
Groupon and GaoPeng said Tuesday that the office closures are part of a change in strategy and don’t diminish their commitment to China. A spokesman for GaoPeng said it plans “to focus more on the middle to large-sized cities” in China where the market is “more developed,” adding that the company “is fully committed to the Chinese market for the long term.”
“Groupon’s approach to international expansion is to aggressively create a large presence upfront and refine our strategy as we gain deeper insight into the local market,” said Groupon spokeswoman Heather Dickinson. “We view any adjustments to the business as very typical in order to build a long-term foundation for success. Our JV in China is just one example of many new markets where we have fine-tuned our strategy as we go. ”
GaoPeng said it is still hiring in China, but it doesn’t dispute that its total number of employees is shrinking. Groupon said it doesn’t disclose its staff count by country, and it couldn’t be determined how many employees the China venture currently has.
Tencent and Yunfeng couldn’t be reached for comment.
Groupon expects to raise about $750 million in a mid-September IPO that could value the company at $20 billion. China represents less than 1% of Groupon’s global revenue, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Foreign Internet companies have long struggled in China, which has more Internet users than any other country. Yahoo Inc., one of the earliest to enter, handed over its China business in 2005 to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and has since quarreled with the Chinese company. EBay Inc. sharply scaled back its presence in China after losing market share to an online shopping site owned by Alibaba. Google Inc. has seen its market share slide, to the benefit of rival Baidu Inc. since the U.S. company moved its Chinese-language search engine to Hong Kong out of frustration over censorship and hacking issues.
Groupon’s entry into China was turbulent from the start. The company has struggled to gain market share as its legions of local competitors also invested heavily in marketing and geographical expansion.
Hundreds of Chinese companies were already offering online buying services in China by the time GaoPeng started offering deals to Chinese users in March. One of those competitors owns the Chinese domain Groupon.cn which, according to research firm Analysys International, had more visitors in the second quarter than Groupon’s own GaoPeng.
While Groupon is the dominant daily-deals website in the U.S., GaoPeng was No. 8 among such websites in China in the second quarter, with 15 million unique visitors a month—less than 30% the number for the top website in the category, Lashou.com.
One GaoPeng manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the company had some 80 offices around the country at its peak, and total headcount of more than 3,000 people, before it started scaling back. “Groupon came into China and tried to expand too aggressively,” he said. “That strategy just doesn’t work in China.”
Zhao Zhanling, an attorney in Beijing representing people laid off by GaoPeng, said a number of employees have complained about the circumstances under which they were fired and negotiated to receive two months of compensation to settle the issue. Mr. Zhao said he plans to ask for a similar deal in the coming months for 100 other former employees, and knows of at least 300 more that have been laid off.
Groupon’s China launch followed a spate of bad publicity from a Super Bowl commercial pegged to the political situation in Tibet—an extremely sensitive issue for China’s government. In the ad, which was quickly translated and circulated on Chinese websites, actor Timothy Hutton narrates a seeming public-service announcement about Tibetans being “in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy”—but the spot then morphs into an ad for a Groupon deal on Tibetan food. Chinese Internet users criticized it, calling the ad offensive and a display of the company’s ignorance about China. Many Americans also took umbrage.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has raised questions about Groupon’s use of an unconventional accounting measurement in its filing for an IPO that critics say masked Groupon’s high marketing costs. The company has since taken the measurement out of its prospectus, which shows it had a loss of $413.4 million last year on revenue of $713.4 million.