The world rarely makes it convenient to do the right thing. Much as one might strive to eat, shop, and operate in the spirit of The Good Life in Liberal Portland, it takes continuous effort to stay one step ahead of misleading marketing, small print, and conflicting claims. Supportland, a mom 'n' pop startup launching in Portland—currently slated for June 10—aims to not only make buying locally effortless (you're still on your own figuring out what "free range" really means), but to change the game on corporations by taking their marketing weapons and putting them in the hands of the little guys. It's a call to arms against big business domination, but it's a battle that will go absolutely nowhere without an army of participating consumers—namely YOU. Your only weapon? A rewards card.
JOIN THE FIGHT, GET IN THE GAME
IN A FEW SHORT WEEKS, you'll start seeing stickers in the windows of neighborhood businesses, decorated with happy cartoon versions of squirrels, bunnies, and North Portland's Paul Bunyan statue cavorting against the backdrop of a snow-capped Mt. Hood. Inside these marked establishments you can pick up a free Supportland rewards card and immediately jump in the game. Essentially, your card will operate like any other rewards program. Simply have the cashier swipe it at any participating business when you make a purchase, and it will begin to accumulate points. You can find these businesses through the Supportland website (supportland.com), GPS-enabled iPhone app, Twitter feed, Facebook page, or, if you're feeling proactive, just ask.
Because Supportland only contracts with businesses that meet the definition of local as put forth by the Sustainable Business Network of Portland's criteria—privately held, with 50 percent or more of business ownership residing in Multnomah, Clackamas, Columbia, Yamhill, Washington, or Clark County, for instance—it's an easy indicator that you can feel confident your money's going toward sustaining the local economy.
Katrina Scotto di Carlo, who along with her husband Michael hatched Supportland out of their St. Johns house (her background is in visual arts, his in the high tech industry), likes to point to the example of 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in Seattle—one of a number of Starbucks-deceptively-not-called-Starbucks—as the kind of misleading marketing maneuver Supportland will help undermine. Even in Portland, after months of hosting Supportland seminars in pointedly local cafés, Scotto di Carlo reported her surprise at how many places she'd always assumed were local turned out to be faux local. Supportland is one way to vet the places you patronize without having to do anything more than whip out your card and ask if they'll take it. If they don't, maybe you should ask why.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
MOVING ON FROM THE SHOP-LOCAL warm fuzzies and getting to the points: Like other rewards cards, you accumulate points through purchases, but what makes Supportland unique is that the businesses also have point accounts. A business can attract customers by using its points for an incentive—a bar could offer 10 of their points to customers who buy a draft beer, for instance. To gain back points (and again, get more people through the door), the bar would need to then offer something in exchange for points—like a happy hour appetizer for 20 points.
One of the beauties of the system is that the consumer can be as engaged or disengaged as they wish. You can use the website and various social networking tools to find businesses and their point incentives, searching by product or service or by location. Say you're broke, but rich in Supportland points, and you need a haircut. Theoretically you could search specifically for businesses in your neighborhood offering haircuts in exchange for points (but don't forget to tip with money!), seal the deal online, then walk up the street to collect.
Alternatively, you can put in the minimal amount of effort. Michael Scotto di Carlo was the model for this strategy, as someone who hates dealing with punch cards and coupons or planning around who offers what. All he has to do to benefit from Supportland is make a habit of having his card swiped every time he makes a purchase, and any offer he's eligible for will automatically pop up.
LIFTING UP THE LITTLE GUYS
WHILE SUPPORTLAND IS DEAD SIMPLE from the consumer's perspective, the businesses have more to consider. The Supportland software offers a spectrum of incentive options each business can customize to their immediate or long-term needs, from getting rid of the last of the day's muffins an hour before closing, to teaming up with other businesses for combined offers, or singling out regulars with customized rewards, like a free glass of Côtes du Rhône for every 20 bought by that one regular who always orders the same, specific thing.
Tony Fuentes of Milagros Boutique is one of Supportland's biggest cheerleaders, and one of the 194 businesses and approximately 650 individuals who have pre-registered for the program. As a business owner himself, he enthuses that it "will create a simple way to create incentives. We commonly conduct joint promotions with other local businesses [but] those efforts are ad hoc and sometimes resource intensive. This provides a way to work jointly, but that partnering is simple and passive. Moreover," he adds, "[it] promises to be more than a simple discount card or loyalty program. It gives us the flexibility to create any promotion we want, any time we want. And we can implement that promotion at the speed of type. This is a natural complement for business like ours who are active on Twitter and so forth, and it means that the program will be more exciting and engaging for consumers. I think the staid nature of traditional buy-local programs—[the] discount or promo never changes—limits the excitement and engagement for customers."
Outside of convenience and flexibility, there is marketing power inherent in a shared, computerized platform. Big businesses have long used tracking information gathered through shoppers' rewards cards to hone their strategies, using software that has historically been out of reach for small businesses. Supportland gives their businesses access to those same kinds of metrics, so that they can track specifically how beneficial their promotions are in attracting and keeping customers. (Privacy note: Supportland doesn't make names or addresses accessible, just your Supportland account number.) By banding together, local independents can use the shared tracking software to determine how best to direct their energy, forming a united competitive front against corporate entities, rather than thousands of tiny Davids against a few Goliaths.
Like any entrepreneurs worth their salt, the Scotto di Carlos' sights are set high. The idea is not just to include bars and boutiques and coffee shops, but larger enterprises like steel mills, ad agencies, and construction companies. There'll be computerized point-of-sale technology, but Supportland can also be accessed by iPhone and even in paper-based form, making it available to every guitar tutor, massage therapist, yoga teacher, tailor, and Saturday Market-vending candlestick maker. Ultimately they'd like to expand to other markets in the US, then internationally. In a perfect Supportland future, you'll be able to determine authentic local businesses wherever you travel in the world, cashing in on the points you collected in Italy in China, Africa, or at home.
IT'S TEMPTING TO THINK OF SUPPORTLAND as the launch of a new sub-currency—after all, you'll be able to exchange points for goods and services, with an ebb and flow moving between customers and business. Katrina Scotto di Carlo admits that, "while parts of it do act like an alternative currency, it really is a rewards card. Our goal is to keep US dollars circulating locally, not invent our own currency." She continues, "Besides the fact that we are not technically a local currency, we also shy away from the label because the idea of an alternative currency freaks some people [out]. The rewards card is something much more comfortable and mainstream—people are already carrying big box store rewards cards around in their wallets. The bar for entry is a lot lower education-wise than with an alternative currency. We really want every citizen under the sun to be on the Supportland system, not just the alternative currency enthusiasts."
So maybe it's getting ahead of ourselves to imagine a lifestyle where Supportland points negate the need for government-issued currency. After all, if Supportland doesn't catch on with consumers and businesses alike, it will just be one more piece of plastic cluttering up your purse, occasionally scoring you a free cookie. But, just maybe it's the start of something bigger—an opportunity for ordinary people to take control of the economics we've grown accustomed to and that have been dictating our realities. At this point, it's anyone's bet.