Starbuck's Gets Sued for Coupon Debacle (the Caffeinated Version)

At attorney in New York is seeking class action status in a lawsuit filed against Starbuck’s for its coupon campaign that closed early after the tell-a-friend response got out of hand. The Starbucks chain offered its employees an email coupon for a free cup of coffee and allowed the employees to pass the coupon onto friends and family. Evidently having not learned from Napster, within hours, the friends and families contacted numbered in the thousands, and Starbuck’s, inundated with coupons, was forced to shut down the promotion early.
New York attorney, Peter Sullivan, sued. According to the Orange County Register, he believes that “Starbucks should account to the thousands of consumers who relied upon the advertisement, went out of their way to stop by a Starbuck’s and ended up being charged $3.00 for coffee.”
Hardly a “bait and switch” in this attorney’s opinion, (the measure by which a jury is likely to judge the Starbuck’s debacle), Starbuck’s may be able to show that it was merely an honest mistake and a good deed that got out of hand. Moreover, it’s not likely that all that many people went out of their way to get the free drink, considering there’s a Starbuck’s on most corners. Still, it would have been wise for the coffee chain to attach certain restrictions on the coupon.
Practice Pointer:
Viral marketing coupons are popular and companies endeavoring to use them should take certain precautions to insure that it is not overwhelmed with responses. Some examples are as follows:

  • Limit coupon to a certain number of redeemers (say, 1000).
  • For new promotions that are untried, make sure the trial period is limited to a couple of days; you can always extend it.
  • Define “friends and family” in a manner than limits the ability to foward it (one person maximum, and/or provide that original recipients must go to a website to filll in the names of recipients to control for aimless forwarding.
  • Always put in a disclaimer that the promotion may be revoked for unforeseen circumstances (it’s not a foolproof protection, but it helps in the PR arena).
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