Rewards card touted to boost local business

Duane Hicks

An integrated rewards card could be a means to boost business among area retailers, according to Terry Garrett of Sonoma, Cal.-based Sustaining Technologies.
Speaking about the benefits of such a program to delegates attending the annual Northern Networks trade conference last Thursday at La Place Rendez-Vous here, Garrett has helped implement the “GoLocal Project” in his community, the purpose of which is to help reclaim local economic power there.
The program has included the use of a magnetic-stripe card used to record transactions at the point of sale.
The first step to getting such a program going includes gathering member businesses and then developing a directory on a website.
The members then could create coupons for various rewards, which would be available on the website.
Customers of the member businesses then would get cards, which they would present whenever they make a purchase.
The merchant would apply a reward for the purchase, which would be carried over onto the customer’s next purchase at a member business.
For example, a customer could get a discount for making a purchase. This discount would be carried over to the next purchase they make at a member business, which, in turn, would offer a reward for making that purchase, and so on.
“What’s purchased in the network stays in the network,” Garrett stressed.
Information such as savings, purchases, and the number of visits customers make would be tracked each time someone uses their card.
This information would allow member businesses to cross-reference data and arrange cross-promotions.
For instance, if it was clear a local book store and a grocery store were getting the same customers, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the book store to set up a book display at the grocery store with cookbooks.
Garrett noted a rewards program generates income for the local network, creates transaction possibilities, and connects residents to businesses, businesses to businesses, and residents to residents.
It also helps keep local dollars circulating in the local economy, he added. This is in direct contrast to big box stores like Wal-Mart, where 85 percent of the money people spend there leaves the community.
Local conference organizer Tannis Drysdale said the “GoLocal” program is something Fort Frances and Rainy River District has to follow up on.
“I think that what they’re doing is ground-breaking, and I think after seeing what kinds of fabulous local wares we have, we have to be doing that here, too,” she stressed.
“We have to be building that kind of infrastructure to support and grow local businesses.”
Drysdale said she’s looked at the data beyond what Garrett had time to cover in his presentation, and there is a local community capital aspect to the program.
“You can take two percent of your profit that’s going to happen because of the program—because it’s self-sustaining after about two years, it pays for itself—and then that profit you can then project into local capital, which means you can reinvest in local businesses and become sort of a lending institution that helps grow those businesses,” she explained.
“They’ve done that, and I’d be really excited to have [Garrett] and his company back in at a later date and work with us on that some more,” Drysdale added.
“We’ve been talking already a little bit about that.”
For those communities interested in getting a rewards card program going, Sustaining Technologies offers member management, organization management, rewards card development, strategic planning and roll-out, set-up, and training and support.
For more information, visit
The Northern Networks trade conference also included a trio of presentations about supporting local foods.
David Abazs, of Round River Farm in Finland, Mn., spoke about his research on local food capacity and his paper, “Can Our Region Feed Itself?”
Meanwhile, David Dumke, president of the Douglas County Farmers’ Market Association and a farm owner, spoke on the success of farmers’ markets there.
Donna Lowey, of Lowey’s Produce, Greenhouse and Market Gardens, here, gave a history of how their business has changed.
In the past 20 years, she and husband, Blair, have blossomed from selling strictly vegetables grown outdoors to selling assorted plants, perennials, trees, and shrubs, as well as vegetables grown within more than 30,000 sq. ft. of greenhouses.
While the Loweys used to sell about 50 percent of their product to a local grocery chain, the company changed policy about 15 years ago and wouldn’t buy local produce without having to first ship it to a warehouse in Calgary.
While this was a blow to their business, the Loweys regrouped and even worked with that same grocery chain in the future—setting up a greenhouse in its parking lot each year to sell flowers and plants.
They also used to sell quite a bit of product in the U.S. but over time, changes to border regulations made it more and more difficult.
In 2008, Lowey’s Greenhouse and Market Garden received the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for making their greenhouses even “greener.”
Currently, the greenhouse, storefront, and their home are heated by using an energy-efficient small bio-mass boiler fed by wood. These greenhouses increase access to local vegetables growing year-round.
Lowey said their business is now 90 percent retail, which involves her selling product at their greenhouse, as well as at the Clover Valley Farmers’ Market here and at similar markets in Kenora, Sioux Lookout, and Red Lake.
Lowey’s also provides produce for two food box programs in Rainy River District and one in Kenora District.
Lowey summarized that their business is “more independent, more in control of our sales from a retail end” than it was years ago.
“I am very happy with the moves we’ve made. Everything’s worked out well,” she told delegates.
“We’re working hard; not making a lot of money but we’re working hard,” she noted.