Advantage Card to Offer Bonuses

Henrico County and several county business associations are partnering to create a new program that they hope will boost county businesses and save shoppers money while celebrating the county's quadricentennial celebration in 2011. The county and the Eastern Henrico Business Association, Lakeside Business Association and Henrico Business Leaders this week unveiled the Henrico Advantage Card (HAC) program, which will offer cardholders rewards when they make purchases at participating retailers.

The card is free and will be available at various retail locations throughout the county. Shoppers who show the card while making purchases at participating stores, restaurants and other businesses will receive "bonuses" for doing so – such as a discount on their purchases or a free gift, for example.

The participating businesses will determine what type of bonus to offer, and when to offer them, and all current offers will be displayed on the program's soon-to-be completed ed website – http://www.HenricoAdvantageCard.com.

The program is not expected to begin officially for several weeks, but organizers already are lining up corporate sponsors, whose advertisements will be featured on the website and weekly e-mail newsletters distributed to cardholders.

"The effort is all about buying and shopping locally," said Henrico County Finance Director John Vithoulkas, a member of the program's organizing committee. "We obviously want regional residents to spend money in Henrico. We've had conversations with some of our businesses about the concept, and the initial feedback has been extremely enthusiastic."

The concept for the program was hatched when Varina District Supervisor Jim Donati visited The Berkshires region of western Massachusetts, where many local businesses use a local paper currency called "Berkshares." That four-year-old program was designed to save shoppers money (they can purchase Berkshares for 95 cents on the dollar from local banks) and boost local spending (since only local merchants accept Berkshares).
"This local currency has gotten a lot of attention nationally," Vithoulkas said. "We thought about [currency]; we also thought about a local coupon that looks like [currency] – and what if we put local figures on it and tied it to the 400th anniversary?"

Ultimately, the organizing committee – which also includes EHBA president Mark Romers, Henrico Business Leaders founder Joe Winston and several other individuals – opted to create the Henrico Advantage Card as a simple way for retailers to offer their own unique specials to shoppers. An initial batch of 10,000 cards was printed last month, with subsequent printings expected as those cards are distributed.

The program is expected to continue through Dec. 31, 2011.

Once the program's website becomes active, shoppers can visit, submit their name and e-mail address and find out where to pick up a free card. They'll also be able to view all current participating businesses and their active offers and sort merchants by industry or region.

"It's designed so businesses can go in and and fairly easily put promotions and offers out to residents," Vithoulkas said.
BB&T already has signed up as a major program partner and will offer the cards for distribution at each branch location in Henrico County. Organizers expect to add several other major sponsors soon. Several sponsorship levels are available.

The program's expenses – design and operation of the website and the printing of cards and other materials for retailers – will be financed through the sponsorships. Retailers who merely want to participate in the program but do not wish to serve as sponsors will be able to do so by purchasing a basic "retail kit," which will permit a business to list its information on the website and receive identifying in-store materials to display for customers. The basic kit is expected to cost less than $100.

"I know of no other locality that has undertaken an effort like this," Vithoulkas said. "It's a unique partnership: the county provides time, expertise and seed money – less than $10,000 – and businesses [do the legwork]."

Businesses interested in participating in the program, or serving as distribution points or as sponsors, should call the Henrico Finance Department at 501-4995 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Editor's Note: Citizen Publisher Tom Lappas has been involved as a member of the organizing committee as a representative of the Lakeside Business Association.
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