Wethersfield Economic Development Chairman Peter Gillespie explained the impetus for the Shops Local program his town enacted in 2010, an effort to promote patronage of the town's businesses.
"Local businesses were losing resident market share to other towns," he stated, which is economics-speak for "Wethersfield citizens were doing their shopping elsewhere."
Gillespie appeared before the Business Assistance Working Group of the Rocky Hill Economic Development Commission this month to share Wetherfield's experience with the response it crafted to the problem: Shops Local. The Wethersfield official was invited by his Rocky Hill counterpart, Economic Development Coordinator Ray Carpentino, to present details of the endeavor and provide an evaluation two years after its inception.
Gillespie explained the contours of the program. Wethersfield residents are eligible for special Shops Local rewards cards on which they can record transactions with participating Shops Local businesses. Five eligible transactions earn an entry into a monthly drawing for a $100 gift certificate to Shops Local vendors, which is funded by the town. A similar $1000 gift certificate drawing, funded by the vendors, is held at Christmas.
Membership in Shops Local is free to both customers and vendors, according to Gillespie. The annual cost to the town is $2500, and the enterprise is affiliated with the 3/50 project, an umbrella network of local business promotion groups and programs.
Gillespie was frank about Wethersfield's early results with the program. He said that while the holiday drawing is popular among program enrollees, the monthly contests have not caught on. He also cited "dwindling numbers" among committed Wethersfield businesses as a weakness.
While Gillespie appeared before the working group ostensibly to teach them about their neighboring town's business program, at times, it seemed as if he had come to learn how such programs could be run more effectively.
Local business community representative Scott Coleman diagnosed Shops Local's problem with declining participation. "If the business community doesn't see money coming in, they lose interest," he observed.
Questioned why Wethersfield's rewards card program did not offer a more enticing reward to shoppers than a ticket in a gift certificate lottery, such as a general discount at all participating stores, Gillespie responded that the town EDC had discussed the idea but considered it a change to be perhaps implemented "down the road."
Group members suggested other improvements to Shops Local that could be applied both if it emerges in Rocky Hill and to its current form in Wethersfield. Carpentino used the session to introduce Gillespie and his fellow committee members to the BerkShare program native to Massachusetts's Berkshire region.
"BerkShares" are a regional currency that enter circulation when citizens exchange U.S. dollars for BerkShare denominations at participating banks. BerkShares can then be used like regular money at businesses that are enrolled in the program.
"You'd have to get the banks and the largest businesses in town," said Coleman, identifying the players whose cooperation would be needed for such a program to function and effectively bolster municipal commerce.
Committee members quickly appropriated a title for a local BerkShares equivalent, should the program be adopted: "Hill-Bills."
The EDC sub-committee will resume its discussions of a local currency program next month. Individual members agreed to gauge interest in the community and recruit possible participants in the interim.