Innovative reward program aims to build economic community

Innovative reward program aims to build economic community-attachment0

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, an innovative new Asheville venture is aiming to transform regular credit or debit cards into reward cards that save local consumers money and benefit local businesses.

The brainchild of Clark Harris, the Local Loyalty Program (known as “LoLo”) was inspired by the area’s burgeoning entrepreneurial scene. Harris grew up in rural eastern North Carolina, but after living in Asheville for the last five years, he says, his heart is now in the mountains. And after honing his marketing and tech skills while telecommuting and working in bigger cities across the Southeast, he’s putting his talents into cultivating economic community right here at home.

“Asheville has its own vibe and its own culture, and I love having a chance to be able to support those businesses that have come from the community,” Harris says.

LoLo essentially turns any account-connected credit or debit card into a rewards card by tracking spending when those cards are used at participating businesses. Members earn 5 percent in rewards on every dollar spent. The reward money (called “LoDough”) can then be used at any participating business, no matter where it’s earned. The rewards automatically accumulate on all purchases when the registered card’s used; they’re redeemable at all participating businesses via smartphone access to the LoLo website.

That means if you spend $100 at Youngblood Bicycles on your registered card, you’ll accrue $5 you can then take off your lunch bill at Mamacita’s. There’s no signup fee or charge to consumers by LoLo. Instead, LoLo brings in revenue from participating business owners who agree to give 3.5 percent of qualifying purchases to the company.

“So it’s a very flexible loyalty program that allows you to earn anywhere and redeem anywhere in the network,” says Harris. “Our program, we created it almost like a barter system, where you’re kind of earning these rewards, and instead of taking them away, you plug them back into the system.”

To qualify as local, at least 50 percent of a business must be owned by Asheville residents. And the idea is to help cultivate a collaborative rather than competitive attitude among them.

“We’re almost looking at it as a local merchant conglomerate. Where we’re trying to give them tools, we’re trying to give them a leg up on the regional chains, and people like that, franchises, that have a combined marketing budget,” explains Harris.

Circle of support
That approach is key to Tanya Triber, co-owner of The Junction, who approved the popular River Arts District restaurant/bar to be one of the program’s first participating businesses.

“The premise behind it is very similar to our own business mission, and that’s to source locally whenever we can and support other local small businesses,” she explains. “It’s very much this feeling of community and mutual support. If somebody is going to Barley’s and then coming here, and then going to Cucina24, and then going to get a haircut, that’s good for everybody in Asheville. That’s putting money in the pockets of someone who’s then maybe going to come to The Junction. It will all come out in the wash, and everyone will rise.”

Another appeal, she notes, is that the scale of the LoLo reward is manageable. Each business can set a limit on how much LoDough a consumer can redeem per visit. At the Junction, $25 is the maximum that can be redeemed at one time.

That’s far less than discounts to some businesses available from the national Groupon site, which offers digital coupons of 50 to 90 percent. But Triber says that, in her experience, such deals are less sustainable than the LoLo model.

“We did do a Groupon, and it was a near disaster,” she reports, noting that businesses often receive only 25 percent of their normal revenue in such arrangements. “It’s a fabulous deal for Groupon, a horrible deal for participants. … I know businesses that have actually gone under from doing Groupons.”

Although the LoLo savings are more moderate, “It’s a way for us to give back to the people who are already coming, who are loyal Junction fans, and be able to reward them without it being a huge out of pocket expense for us,” Triber says.

Launched Nov. 11, the program has 12 businesses signed up, with about 13 more coming soon, according to Harris. Just over 200 members have already activated their credit cards, which, he says, is more than he expected at this point. Of course, he’s hoping those numbers will grow in coming months. And next year, he’s looking at expanding the business model to other cities such as Durham and Nashville.

But first, Harris wants to expand the charitable aspects of the company here. LoLo is currently partnering with Asheville on Bikes, a multimodal advocacy nonprofit, giving it a dollar for every member it refers to join the network. Soon, he wants to bring other local nonprofits into the fold, and give enrollees a choice of which one they’d like the company to give a dollar to in their name.

“You know a lot of companies do ‘1 percent for the planet.’ We want to do something similar, but it’s for the local community,” says Harris. “We want to be kind of a poster child for a socially responsible company.”

As more and more local consumers, businesses and nonprofits use the service to work together, Harris thinks LoLo will make a big impact. The broader vision is to help create “a circle where everyone’s supporting everyone,” he says. “If that happens, we’ve got that ‘all ships rise in high tide’ mentality. And we just hope to stimulate people into spending money in the local economy.”

For a complete list of participating businesses and more information, visit join.loloeffect.com

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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