A mobile app available to consumers who patronize local Saline County businesses, notched another record last month.
The Choose Saline County loyalty program redeemed $12,681 in “Saline Stars” during June, rewarding shoppers for buying goods and services in Saline County over large chains and online retailers. Stars are worth $1 each.
Since launching during the late spring of 2022, Choose Saline County has seen $2.3 million in economic activity flow through the platform, and $84,800 redeemed to local businesses, said Christopher DiGirolomo, city success manager at Colu, a company from Israel, now based in New York City.
Until June, monthly redemptions had yet to eclipse $11,000.
Last month’s results were a surprise, said Ector Diaz, marketing and content coordinator for the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce, and a “local ambassador” of the Choose Saline County app.
“People are loving the app and are using it more regularly. That gave us something like Christmas in June,” he said. “You would expect something like that around the holidays.”
Saline County is the leading community among seven signed up with the Colu program. Others include Peachtree Corners, GA, Utica, NY, Akron and Youngstown in Ohio, and Monterey Park, CA.
“Saline County a frontrunner and early adopter of this kind of smart city technology,” DiGirolomo said. “It is refreshing to see a county that truly champions its constituents.”
His hopes for Saline County continue to climb, expecting to reach 100,000 Stars redeemed and approach $2.5 million in economic activity within the next two months.
Economic activity is the number of dollars spent to earn the rewards and the amount of rewards being redeemed, DiGirolomo said.
More businesses are joining in as “earners,” who reward Stars to consumers, and “redeemers,” who both reward Stars and allow Stars to be used for purchases.
“Other cities are also doing well, but Saline County has had more magnitude,” he said.
County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes ran into the app while shopping for a way to bolster the local economy with the county’s $10.532 million federal allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act. It was meant to counter the pain from the COVID-19 pandemic. Saline Stars were hatched in April 2022. The first results were logged in June last year.
The county aims to spend up to $670,000 out of that fund on the loyalty program. Both Smith-Hanes and Melissa McCoy, county public information officer, lauded County Commissioners for adopting Choose Saline County as an innovative way to disperse funds.
The program is gaining in participation and in popularity.
“It absolutely encourages me to shop locally more often. I spend a lot of Stars downtown,” said Nikki Morgan, who works in Salina and lives in Assaria.
“I am more likely to make a purchase at a business that will help me to earn Stars, or where I can spend Stars,” she said.
Choose Saline County is a bit like eating Bonbons in front of the television and knowing you’re not going to gain an ounce.
The app provides a lure for folks to shop for goods and services in Salina/Saline County. Purchases can have zero effect on the budget, leaving little buyer’s remorse.
Not long ago, Melissa McCoy, the county’s public information officer, loaded up her two young sons, drove them to Brown’s Shoe Fit, 2150 Planet Ave., in South Salina, and outfitted them with new shoes. McCoy had enough to snare some kicks for herself, spending 300 Stars.
“Ninety-nine percent of my money goes to my family, but there is no guilt when I use some Stars for myself,” she said. “Now I have a nice new pair of running shoes that doesn’t have holes in the toes.”
Choose Saline County has played a role in producing “real good results,” at Brown’s, said owner Daniel Pilkington.
“We have people getting shoes sooner that they normally would, because they can afford it,” he said.
Buying habits vary, but Stars come into play often.
“We have somebody redeeming Stars almost every day,” Pilkington said. “You get people redeeming once or twice a year, and people who use (the app) every quarter. People see us with the app who have never been in before, or they may not come in as soon,. We’ve definitely gotten new customers off of the app.”
Stars make some non-necessity purchases possible.
“I would not have gotten my lashes lifted if I could not have redeemed my Stars,” McCoy said.
That provided some income for Brandy Mauldin at Salon 2412, a redeeming business at 2412 Belmont.
While mosquitoes were swarming in her back yard, McCoy used Stars to stock up on insecticide Dunks to kill mosquito larvae in standing water, in an effort to cut back on the numbers of the blood-sucking, disease-spreading pests.
“I opened my (Choose Saline County) app to see where I could go. I thought ‘Why not go to Ace Hardware (321 S. Broadway) where I can get 20-percent back in Stars?’ It’s easy to fall into a routine and always frequent the same places,” McCoy said.
Some shoppers have provided suggestions to improve the app, such as convincing more merchants to be redeemers. There are currently 46 redeemers in the county and only one is a restaurant.
Proponents are on a mission to add eateries to the redeemers list. A few are edging closer to letting diners spend Stars. Among them is Tony Dong, owner of Martinelli’s Little Italy, 158 S. Santa Fe.
“It’s something I want to do. The couple of times it’s been in front of my face to get it set up, I just haven’t had time. It’s all on me,” he said. “The rollout of (Choose Saline County) was during the COVID era, and we were just like a lot of other businesses, trying to figure out how to operate, and adding something to manage just wasn’t something we wanted to do. We learned there are some hoops to jump through.”
Dong does not fear the necessary technology to become a redeemer, and nor will his 60 to 70 employees, most of them high school and college students. He’s confident that tweaking his system is do-able.
“All I need is a checklist typed out and posted somewhere,” Dong said. “I’ve just gotta be a better manager, figure out a system, and get it rolling.”
Nikki would like more places to spend her Stars.
“I feel like more businesses could definitely participate in the redeemer side of things,” she said.
Promoters are working on rectifying a number of issues.
But overall, DiGirolomo is leading cheers for the county from afar. He plans a visit to Saline County within the next few months.
“Phil’s been awesome. He cares about his constituents,” DiGirolomo said. “I love seeing all the engagement from community members, and how Saline County has been championing the community.”
The amount of rewards varies by geographic area — 5 percent in areas where the most Stars are awarded, to 20 percent in sectors that could use a boost.
It’s an effort to encourage more activity and spread it more evenly, DiGirolomo said.
Shoppers from anywhere can sign up for the app. They are limited to 250 Stars per area and up to 10 Stars per transaction.
“If I max out in a certain area, I have still trained myself to go back to those stores and shop more locally,” McCoy said.
She also peruses the app to find more Star rewarding places to shop, and those who both award Stars and redeem them.
“It’s making it almost like a game,” DiGirolomo said. “When people max out in one place, they can go elsewhere for rewards.”
Like the Colu website reads:
“Saline Stars can be leveraged to gamify local events and initiatives, further driving consumer engagement and supporting the local economy … creating a win-win situation for both consumers and businesses.”
Choose Saline County aims to foster a fair, balanced and equitable environment that’s capable of growth.
“What we’re trying to do is increase local economic activity, establish a more circular economy that stays within Saline County. And the other piece, we want people to have a shared sense of community betterment, a sense of pride, a sense of ownership,” DiGirolomo said. “When that happens, they tend to treat home better, and it also creates a shared sense of community betterment and solidarity.”
FACTOID: Colu makes money by charging fees for the software, monitoring the app and providing data, said Christopher DiGirolomo, city success manager at Colu in New York City.
FACTOID: Salon 2412 is relocating in August to a larger space at 2501 Market, with expanded services.
FACTOID: Choose Saline County is funded through 2024, said Melissa McCoy, the county’s public information officer, but if the loyalty program results in a significant rise in sales tax revenue, it could continue.
“It would have to be self-sustaining, but even if it ends in 2024, we still have a year and a half to benefit from this,” she said.
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Photo: The large blue sticker on the sidewalk in front of True Betty Boutique, 108 N. Santa Fe downtown Saline, shows the business is participating in the Choose Saline County mobile app. Photo courtesy of Melissa McCoy