Gift card stimulus program is helping retailers over a rough patch in downtown Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Update 4.7.2020: The success of the Downtown Kalamazoo Gift Card Stimulus Program caught the attention of organizations representing downtowns across the country, and has already been successfully replicated in Tucson, Arizona and Anchorage, Alaska. More than 650 members of the Kalamazoo community purchased 2,000 gift cards in five days to bring $70,000 directly to downtown businesses through the gift card program. And the Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership has thanked the community for “not only for the support of our Kalamazoo downtown businesses but also for being a part of an initiative that is being employed to support businesses across the country.”
Just as restaurants and small businesses look for a boost, some in downtown Kalamazoo appear to have found 2,000 small, plastic pick-me-ups.

Two thousand gift cards, with a combined value of about $70,000, were sold last week to support downtown businesses. Those sales came just as many merchants began trying to survive the loss of sales resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The first 1,000 gift cards were sold in about three days after the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership launched the Gift Card Stimulus Program. The organization added $10 to the value of any $25 gift card purchased for a downtown business. 

After that overwhelmingly positive response, it offered the same deal on 1,000 additional cards. Those were purchased in a 24-hour period that ended last Saturday evening, according to Sue Huggett, events director for Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership, the lead promotional, marketing and development organization for the central business district.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback, a lot of ‘Thank yous,’ and everyone is extremely appreciative,” Huggett says.

The manager of one location says that the infusion of cash helped the business meet its payroll demand this month, Huggett says. It is a great show of support from the community, she says.

The Gift Card Stimulus Program was one of more than a dozen ideas that surfaced as Andrew Haan, president of Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership, and his staff met to brainstorm ways to help local businesses keep going while recognizing the need to keep the public safe from exposure to the coronavirus. 

Huggett says they honed an idea that a staff member said was being used in a New Hampshire town. Kalamazoo’s program, which has card buyers pay into an account and receive their gift cards by mail, formalizes the way buyers are registered and the way purchases are tracked, however, she says.

“The next step will be to mail the gift cards to the people who purchased them,” she said Monday.

The $10 boost in value for each card provided an incentive for more people to buy. When customers return in the future to use the gift cards, that extra $10 per card will continue to help stimulate business and interest in the downtown, according to the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership.

According to the organization, 650 individuals purchased 2,000 gift cards that will be used at nearly 70 downtown businesses. Huggett says that the average buyer purchased three to five cards. She says no decision has been made on whether the program will be continued but she encourages the public to continue purchasing gift cards directly from downtown businesses. They may visit DowntownKalamazoo.org for updates.

Another idea that sprung from the brainstorming was the curb-side drive-up zones on Michigan Avenue and other downtown locations that allow customers to quickly pick up food and other purchases while minimizing their exposure to germs from others.

Along with promoting the sale of gift cards, the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership encourages people to shop online at local stores, shop by telephone, and elevate the brands and social media presence of local vendors by leaving a review of them on their web pages.

Last week, businesses started to be curtailed by a statewide order that banned the gathering of 50 or more people. Among restaurants, only those with take-out or drive-thru services remained open. In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, business operators started this week with the governor prohibiting all “in-person work that is not necessary to sustain or protect life.” That, in effect, shut down most businesses and they instructed their workers to stay home.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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