With small businesses hit hard financially during the COVID-19 pandemic and local entrepreneurs struggling to bring in revenue, the city on Monday launched “Akronite,” an app that incentivizes citizens to patronize local businesses through a rewards program funded by the city.
Customers are rewarded for each in-person and online purchase they make at the 130 participating local businesses through points, or “blimps” — a nod, of course, to the Goodyear blimp. Each blimp is worth $1 that can be redeemed at any location. At the end of each month, the city reimburses the businesses for rewards they accepted.
“We had to decide fast what we could do to help our locally-owned small businesses that were disproportionately impacted by everything happening,” says James Hardy, Akron’s Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development. “This is a good way to get people engaged with the community while everything else is so uncertain.”
In lieu of foot traffic through neighborhoods that businesses rely on to bring in customers — particularly downtown, where Main Street and other roads are blockaded with orange traffic cones — the app uses behavioral economics and gamification to drive traffic both digitally and with an incentive to stop by in-person. Racking up blimps toward a goal is like a game that positively reinforces the act of spending money toward the local economy, and that method has proven to be effective in other cities, explains Calvin Saunders, the city launcher for Colu, the Israeli-based technology company that developed the app.
The city invested $32,500 into the app’s development by Colu, which has launched similar government initiative rewards apps in other countries. The initial rewards budget for all redeemed blimps is $30,000, with an additional $10,000 from Colu to help the app succeed — a total of $40,000 paid out to local businesses. The city contracted developers through 2021, and the yearly fees for backend support will come from the general fund in next year’s budget.
The decision to hire an international agency rather than a local design firm raised some eyebrows from citizens who posted concerned or critical responses to the app’s rollout on social media. Akron is the first city in the U.S. to partner with Colu. The company drew attention from city leadership for a project that boosted business in Tel Aviv during a time when local shops were difficult to access during construction of a light rail line, similar to Downtown construction in Akron.
“It was either a vetted gov-tech company with an off-the-shelf product versus trying to create something from scratch locally, and that would’ve taken more time,” Hardy says. “We do have the talent here, and I’ll take full responsibility for anyone who’s upset with the process. We needed to have something to help local businesses as quickly as possible.” He also notes that Colu has been a great partner, even backing the project with $10,000 of their own money.
Local economic growth resulting from Akronite will be measured through the app’s backend over time, but citizens appear to be grasping onto the technology. The first goal — to get 2,000 downloads in the first month — was crushed in just two days.
Now, Hardy says, the benchmark will be focused on usage of the app as well as patronage of the businesses listed — which, according to local business owners, customers are already doing.
“I think it’s a great idea, and we’re really grateful the city put together the resources to do this,” says Charly Murphy, owner of Stray Dog. “In just two days, we’ve already had people coming in to redeem the rewards at the store. My personal goal through this is to meet new customers and create loyalty with those customers.”
The app is intended to lift a burden off local business owners, so it’s free for businesses to participate and advertise rewards. The user-friendly interface similar to Instagram Stories allows users to tap through offers, looking for the best deals sorted by categories, highlighting Black- and female-owned businesses within the app.
“I definitely think it’s going to encourage people to come in,” says Chad Magilavy, owner of Diamond Deli which shut down for several months before reopening in June. “We don’t have to really do anything on our end, which is really nice. I think it’s a super cool idea, and I’m excited to see what happens.”
If your local business would like to participate, contact the Office of Integrated Development at 330-375-2133.
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.