A new program hopes to put local businesses at the forefront of consumers' minds

Awareness is the Achilles heel of locally-owned businesses. Without the multimillion dollar advertising budgets to saturate television, radio and print, locally owned shops, eateries, bars and charities are handicapped against big-box retailers and nationwide restaurant chains as they fight for market visibility.

Keep It Local OK is a new group looking to even the odds somewhat by giving locally owned businesses an exclusive outlet to attract customers. It hopes to do this by developing a rewards card and Web site dedicated to promoting independent businesses.

"The vision is to get the resources people need to locate unique local businesses," co-founder Chris Branson said. "We make a point of looking for these types of places when we are shopping or looking for a place to eat, and not only in Oklahoma City, but as we are traveling around. We've found there a lot of other people like us. The problem is that they don't always know how to find them, so ultimately they will just end up at Chili's again."

Keep It Local OK is an informational hub for people wanting to keep their dollars local, but also for those not wanting to wander around the city until they find something worthwhile. The Web site will eventually be a statewide resource, but it's wetting its toes in the Oklahoma City market.

Any business that is locally owned and operated is eligible to join for $500 per year, which sets the business up with a profile on keepitlocalok.com, with a brief bio including hours and services or products the business offers. A rewards card will then be used to lure customers onto the site and then to the various businesses featured.

"The card is used like a coupon, so these business that sign on for membership will offer an exclusive reward for any of the cardholders," co-founder Bryce Bandy said. "They can go on the site and see the contact information of different businesses as well as what the exclusive reward is. It's like a coupon, but without having to print tons of coupons that just end up in the trash."

The 2010 card is now available and will be sold at many of the member retail stores. The Web site isn't limited to cardholders, however. It is available to anyone wanting to discover new businesses across the metro.

Café Evoke Catering, 1708 N.W. 16th, was one of the first member businesses. Located in the Plaza District, Café Evoke brings specialty-style coffee bars to events ranging from corporate functions to private parties. Owner Jason Duncan said that Keep It Local OK was a natural fit for his business.

"People will start realizing when they are using the card that all these businesses are around, so when they would normally go to a chain, there are these local places right around the corner they didn't even know (were) there," Duncan said. "It'll expand people's horizons, get new people in the store that we couldn't reach on our own."

Branson said there have been other similar movements in progressive cities across the country, and he believes that now it's Oklahoma City's turn.

OKC won't be the first to jump on the bandwagon. In 2008, the American Independent Business Alliance joined Oklahoma Gazette's parent company, Tierra Media Group, to launch the "America Unchained" business alliance in Oklahoma City. That separate initiative urges local, independent businesses of all shapes and sizes to unite locally and push back against big-box retailers. A year later, the Tulsa Area Independent Business Association celebrated its first official "America Unchained" event on Nov. 21. Holiday shoppers were encouraged to get their jump on Christmas gifts by buying local.

Another nationwide movement called The 3/50 Project works to redirect customers to their local businesses in a more efficient way and keep money cycling inside the local economy. According to its Web site, www.the350project.net, for every $100 spent in a locally owned business, $68 is re-spent in the local economy through taxes, payroll and other expenditures.
If that same $100 is spent in a national chain headquartered out of state, only $43 returns to the local economy.

Having that money kept in Oklahoma will keep the state growing, Bandy said. He anticipates having 20 to 30 businesses signed up within the first few months of the program, and if
Keep It Local OK proves to be a success, then it will soon expand to Tulsa and other communities across the state.

"The response I've been getting so far has been really positive," Bandy said. "It suits itself well to retail, restaurants and boutiques, but we will open it up to bookkeepers, freelance designers, photographers, lawn services. As long as they are locally and independently owned and can offer a discount to the public, they are eligible."

Bandy said that a further draw is that the businesses can receive the rewards cards at cost and then resell for a profit. Keep It Local OK will also be broadening its scope to incorporate nonprofits, perhaps even donating the rewards cards to the programs so the organizations could keep 100 percent of the proceeds from selling the rewards cards.

The Spero Project, a networking organization for ministries and nonprofits, is already a member of Keep it Local OKC. Director Kim Bandy said that, beyond the fund-raising benefit of the rewards cards, the boost in visibility that the Web site offers could be critical for new programs trying to gain recognition and support from the local community.

"It takes four to five years in existence before people get a good feel of your work," she said. "In the meantime, it's hard to express what you are doing and have tangible results for what you've done. Unfortunately, that's when nonprofits need the most assistance, while they are starting up."

The benefit of giving to local organizations is that each dollar goes further because of the smaller staffs and lack of costly promotional campaigns.

"Local, grassroots nonprofits have a lot more flexibility in their spending and programs, so you might get more action out of your donation," she said. "At the same time, they have more flexibility because they don't spend as much money on promotion. That is why the partnership with Keep It Local is very beneficial."

Keep It Local OK is going to be a labor of love, according to Branson, because the project wasn't started to make money.

"The point is to make the program as cheap as possible to minimize the excuse for not being a part of it," he said. "We want to make it as attainable as possible. We want everyone to be into this and supporting local businesses."

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