“Akronite” is the new app that rewards Akron customers by giving them a percentage back on purchases made at participating businesses. The rewards are given in the form of “Blimps,” Akron’s city coin, which are redeemable only at local stores—an initiative aimed at keeping shoppers’ dollars in the area.
The app was designed by Israeli-based startup Colu. According to Michael Mazur, Vice President of Business Development at Colu, Akron is the first U.S. city to use their platform. Similar programs using the technology are currently operational in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Mazur says that Colu has received significant interest since its launch in Akron, and the company is currently in the process of selecting five more cities for 2020.
Early this year, when stay-at-home orders from the pandemic went into effect, Akron’s downtown was already struggling from heavy construction in the area. The lockdown further crippled small businesses, says Heather Roszczyk, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Advocate for Akron.
“Akron’s a mid-sized city, and so we know all these people, these business owners are our friends and colleagues, and I think there was just a real concern about what the future of the city was going to look like,” Roszczyk told Cities of the Future.
About four months after their first phone call with Colu, they launched a beta version of Akronite. The city debated about using a local startup to develop the application and received some pushback for not doing so. Still, they felt they could help more businesses sooner with an already established product.
Roszczyk says that the city made a considerable effort to roll out Akronite from the beginning. They wanted businesses to see it as a tool to revive the local economy, and not just as a sales pitch.
Introducing vendors to Akronite started with an email outreach from the mayor, followed by a Zoom call where city officials presented the Colu team. When they reached out to businesses individually, the city made sure that someone was representing Akron along with the Colu team, so that merchants would have a familiar face.
The marketing budget was very slim, Roszczyk says, noting that word of mouth through community involvement has been the primary advertising channel. The city has been pushing the app on social media, putting inserts in residents’ water bills, and has received some media attention, among other promotional efforts. Businesses that are using the app also have counter cards and door stickers.
“If I could change one thing, I’d love to have more discretionary money to throw at just trying to get the word out,” Roszczyk says. “No matter how much you push it, there’s always someone who says, ‘I had no idea that was happening.’”
The City of Akron invested $32,500 into app development and an additional $30,000 in rewards. Colu invested $10,000 in rewards as well.
While currently there’s no cost to the businesses to use the app, Roszczyk says that down the road, there may be a small fee—but not any time soon. The city also hopes to solicit support from local corporations.
There’s currently 122 businesses on Akronite. The city focused its efforts on signing up shops in the downtown area first. About 99 percent of the businesses approached wanted to join the platform. The city saw 2,000 downloads of the app in the first week, tremendously surpassing its initial goal of 1,000 downloads in the first month.
“We have not yet gathered detailed information from the businesses regarding revenue, but have received very positive feedback from the business owners themselves,” Roszczyk says. “As expected, the establishments actively engaged in promoting the app to their customers are seeing the biggest benefit.” She noted that the app’s dining category is getting the most use so far.
The app allows you to drive consumer spending, a feature the city is currently taking advantage of to promote black-owned businesses—where it’s offering shoppers an additional percentage back stacked on top of the regular rewards.
The city has no plans to phase Akronite out, Roszczyk says, adding, “I think this is the type of local rewards system that’s certainly just as important post-Covid as any other time. Shopping local is something that we always try to encourage our residents to do.”
Roszczyk has been fielding lots of calls about Akronite from other cities across the country. The main advice she has for cities considering trying something similar is to engage as many locals and partners as possible—in part because the more organizations involved, the more advocates there are in helping to get the word out.