Stars Rewards “Like Free Money”

A “Stars” studded summer and fall has proponents of the Choose Saline County rewards program eager to share its virtues entering holiday shopping. Results are just beginning to shine.

The local loyalty enhancement uses federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, awarding Saline Stars to consumers for their patronage of participating businesses in Saline County. In return, they can spend their Stars at locally-owned businesses.
“It’s like free money,” said Pam Welsh at Blushe Boutique, a women’s fashion store at 128 S. Santa Fe in downtown Salina. She co-owns the store with her daughter McKenzie Srna.

Launched in April, Choose Saline County has been doubling monthly, in terms of participation and dollars generated, said Phillip Smith-Hanes, Saline County administrator. “It seems to be doing really well,” he said.

As of Nov. 1 there were 27,923.12 Stars awarded after purchases of goods and services in the county, said Ector Diaz, marketing and content coordinator at the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce. He has been helping Saline County promote and administer the program.

“Consumers just spend money like they normally do, and collect Stars, and then you get to spend the Stars that you earn,” Diaz said. “It’s a win-win-win. You just can’t get any more lucky for living in a community that does this.”

The program is open to any person who signs up and shops at registered businesses in Saline County. Some categories on the app offer rewards of 10 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent back in Stars, he said. Varying percentages is an effort to drive consumers to businesses that don’t have as much demand.

On Black Friday, Nov. 25 through 28, one-third of purchase prices will be returned to consumers as Stars, until they reach their limit. Each user has a limit to the amount of Stars they can earn for each category.

“This is done to keep the distribution of Stars fair and even,” Diaz said.

Check the app for a list of 274 Earners, businesses that award Stars, and Redeemers, the 28 businesses that both award and allow consumers to spend their Stars.

Anyone can download the Choose Saline County application on smartphones or other devices, pairing it with a debit or credit card.

Each redeemed Star fetches you a dollar that can be used to buy goods and services from participating merchants. Linking a card wins you 15 free Stars, and referring a friend using a referral code will result in 10 Stars.

“Businesses win, too. They get paid at the end of each month and there is an added bonus at the end of the year,” Diaz said. “In October, businesses received an extra 75 percent back from the Stars redeemed; 50 percent in November, and an extra 25 percent in December.”

For example, if $1,000 in Stars were redeemed in October, the participating business was paid $1,750 from the program; $1,500 this month, and if the same is received in December, the total is $1,250, he said.

“It was like a no-brainer for us to sign up for this, as it’s not costing us anything. It’s totally positive for us,” Pam Welsh said.

Merchant incentives in 2023 have yet to be discussed, Diaz said.

“On our side, (the chamber of commerce), we are promoting local business, keeping economy within Salina and Saline County, and making sure that money circulates within us,” Diaz said, “instead of some corporate entity that doesn’t even live here.”

While numbers are growing, there are concerns, among them a relatively low number of businesses where consumers can redeem Stars for purchases, according to Diaz.

“That’s part of the reason I was hired, to get those redeeming business numbers up, and we have been adding new businesses recently to that list,” he said.

Stars was an easy decision to Daniel Pilkington, owner of Brown’s Shoe Fit, 2150 Planet Avenue, in south Salina.
“We allow customers to get credit when buying products and when they redeem (Stars) to buy products,” he said.

In October alone, Brown’s Shoe Fit redeemed more than $1,000 from shoppers “tendering” their Stars.

“We’ve seen really good results from it,” Pilkington said. “We’ve got people coming in who normally wouldn’t be able to afford good quality shoes, or not as often, for work, exercise, kids’ shoes, to help out the whole family. They’re spending money around town, and buying shoes sooner than normal. They say ‘Oh I’ve got free money on my app. Let’s go.’ ”

Choose Saline County has attracted shoppers to Brown’s Shoe Fit, he said, which also adds to sales. The store is Choose Saline County’s top redeeming business. The top Earner business is Cave Divers Liquor, 2745 Belmont Boulevard in south Salina.

Choose Saline County costs businesses nothing, Blushe Boutique’s Welsh said, and can only boost their bottom lines.

“If someone is earning Stars when they go get a smoothie, when they come in here, it’s like an extra bonus. It’s totally a positive for us,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who still don’t even know about it. Continuing to educate the consumers will help even more.”

Welsh plans to use social media “to let people know they can get the app, earn some Stars and spend Stars here.”

Having already noticed the benefits, she excited about the holiday shopping season that just started.

“I would say the biggest help has been exposure,” said Pilkington of Brown’s Shoe Fit. “People see they can redeem Stars here. They come in and say ‘Oh, we never really knew you were here. They want to use their credit, and everybody needs shoes.”

Reaction from local traders has been good, said Leslie Bishop, executive director of Salina Downtown Inc.

“The stores downtown that participate have really liked it. I’ve heard two owners refer to it as ‘free money,’ ” she said. “It encourages visitors and people who live local to shop local. It’s important.”

For every dollar spent in Salina, 80 cents stays in town.

“You’re gonna buy from other local merchants, support youth groups, and put that money back into the community,” Bishop said.
As a consumer, she “has collected a fair amount of Stars,” and has enjoyed cashing them in.

“I have purchased a few stocking stuffers at Flipping Fabulous (104 N. Santa Fe, Suite A). I went to Apron Strings (143B S. Santa Fe) and was able to get six pots and pans for a total of 18 dollars with my Stars. Without them, my pots and pans would have been 300 dollars,” Bishop said. “I go with a group of women from our Leadership Salina class, to Ad Astra Books & Coffee House (135 N. Santa Fe). Using my stars doesn’t make me feel so guilty buying a $6 coffee.”

Spreading the word, and watching the reaction, has also been fun for her.

“I have given talks to three local women’s groups. When I brought up Choose Salina, 50 percent of the women whipped out their phones and signed up,” Bishop said. “I earned Stars for giving them the promo code.”

Kayla Stone, a sales associate at Blushe Boutique, uses the Choose Saline County app to help herself and her employer.

“I honestly just use it here at work because I love the clothes, but I seek out local places to earn the Stars to use here,” she said.
The program is still in somewhat of a fledgling stage, and there are some kinks to work out. While there are restaurants on the Earners list, none have signed up as Redeemers.

“Part of my efforts are to reach out to restaurants. I’m going through to see which ones are earning the most Stars for consumers,” Diaz said. “The biggest issues we see are restaurants have so many servers that use the POS (point of sale) systems, and they have to be trained. We have restaurants willing. They just have to find the time to train all of the employees.”

Not all stores have the same equipment, Diaz said, and some require more steps to accomplish the task. A special payment tab was added to Blushe Boutique’s POS system, at no cost to the business, Welsh said.

“It’s very easy to add it in. If someone’s paying that way, they just show it went through on their phone. We touch that button and it gives us credit for the sale,” she said.

Hopes are rising that Choose Saline County will become a staple program, Smith-Hanes said, if it generates enough sales tax revenue to continue funding it once the ARPA money is exhausted.

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