Stars reward “like free money”; schedule a “win-win-win” for Salina, Saline County

By TIM UNRUH
for Saline County

A star-studded summer and fall, supporters of the Choose Saline County rewards program are eager to share its virtues as they hit the holiday shopping spree.

The results are just starting to shine.

The local loyalty enhancement uses federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), awarding Saline Stars to consumers for their patronage of participating businesses in Saline County. In return, they can spend their stars on local businesses.

“It’s like free money,” Pam Welsh told Blushe Boutique, a women’s fashion store at 128 S. Santa Fe in downtown Salina. She co-owns the store with her daughter McKenzie Srna.

Launched in April, Choose Saline County has doubled every month, in attendance and dollars generated, said Saline County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.

“It seems to be going really well,” he said.

As of Nov. 1, 27,923.12 stars have been awarded after purchases of goods and services in the county, said Ector Diaz, marketing and content coordinator at the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce. He helped Saline County promote and administer the program.

“Consumers just spend money like they normally do and collect stars, and then you can spend the stars you earn,” Diaz said. “It’s a win-win-win. You just can’t be more fortunate to live in a community that does that.

The program is open to anyone who registers and purchases from registered businesses in Saline County. Some categories in the app offer 10%, 15% and 20% star rewards, he said. The variation in percentages is an effort to attract consumers to companies that do not have as much demand.

On Black Friday weekend, November 25-28, one-third of purchase prizes will be returned to consumers as stars, until they reach their limit. Each user has a limit to the number of stars they can earn for each category.

“This is done to keep the cast of stars fair and even,” Diaz said.

Check out the app for a list of 274 earners, companies that award stars and redeemers, the 28 companies that reward and allow consumers to spend their stars.

Anyone can download the Choose Saline County app on a smartphone or other device, pairing it with a debit or credit card.

Each star redeemed earns you one dollar which can be used to purchase goods and services from participating merchants. Linking a card earns you 15 free stars, and referring a friend using a referral code will result in 10 stars.

“Companies also win. They get paid at the end of each month and there is an additional bonus at the end of the year,” Diaz said. “In October, companies received an additional 75% of redeemed stars; 50% in November and an additional 25% in December.

For example, if $1,000 of stars were redeemed in October, the participating company received $1,750 from the program; $1,500 this month, and if the same is received in December, the total is $1,250, he said.

“It was like a no-brainer for us to sign up for this, because it costs us nothing. It’s totally positive for us,” said Pam Welsh.

Incentives for traders in 2023 have yet to be discussed, Diaz said.

“On our end, (the Chamber of Commerce), we promote local businesses, keep the economy within Salina and Saline County, and keep the money flowing within us,” Diaz said, “ instead of a corporate entity that doesn’t even live here.”

As the numbers grow, there are concerns, including a relatively small number of businesses where consumers can redeem stars for purchases, according to Diaz.

“That’s part of the reason I was hired, to get these buyout company numbers, and we’ve recently added new companies to this list,” he said.

Stars was an easy decision for Daniel Pilkington, owner of Brown’s Shoe Fit, 2150 Planet Avenue in South Salina.

“We allow customers to get credit when buying products and when they redeem (stars) to buy products,” he said.

In October alone, Brown’s Shoe Fit raked in more than $1,000 from shoppers “offering” their stars.

“We’ve seen some really good results,” Pilkington said. “We have people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford good quality shoes, or not as often, for work, exercise, kids shoes, to help the whole family. They spend money in town and buy shoes earlier than usual. They say “Oh, I have free money on my app”. Let’s go.’ ”

Choose Saline County has drawn shoppers to Brown’s Shoe Fit, he said, which is also increasing sales. The store is Choose Saline County’s main buyout business. The highest-grossing business is Cave Divers Liquor, 2745 Belmont Boulevard, in South Salina.

Choosing Saline County costs businesses nothing, said the Welshman of Blushe Boutique, and can only boost their bottom line.

“If someone earns stars when they go get a smoothie, when they come here, it’s like an added bonus. It’s totally positive for us,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t even know it. Continuing to educate consumers will help even more.

Welsh plans to use social media “to let people know they can get the app, earn stars, and spend stars here.”

Having already noticed the benefits, she was excited for the holiday shopping season that had just begun.

“I would say the biggest help was exposure,” said Pilkington of Brown’s Shoe Fit. “People see they can redeem stars here. They come in and say, ‘Oh, we never really knew you were here.’ They want to use their credit and everyone needs shoes.

The response from local merchants has been good, said Leslie Bishop, general manager of Salina Downtown Inc.

“The participating downtown stores really liked it. I’ve heard two landlords talk about ‘free money,’” she said. “It encourages visitors and locals to shop locally. It is important.”

For every dollar spent in Salina, 80 cents stay in town.

“You’re going to buy from other local merchants, support youth groups, and put that money back into the community,” Bishop said.

As a consumer, she “collected a fair amount of stars” and enjoyed cashing in on them.

“I bought some stocking stuffers at Flipping Fabulous (104 N. Santa Fe, Suite A). I ​​went to Apron Strings (143B S. Santa Fe) and was able to get six pots and pans for a total of $18 with my stars. Without them, my pots and pans would have been $300,” Bishop said. “I’m going with a group of women from our Salina Leadership class to Ad Astra Books & Coffee House (135 N. Santa Fe) Using my stars doesn’t make me feel so guilty for buying a $6 coffee.

Spreading the word and watching the reaction has also been fun for her.

“I gave talks to three local women’s groups. When I brought up Choose Salina, 50% of women pulled out their phones and signed up,” Bishop said. “I earned stars for giving them the promo code.”

Kayla Stone, sales associate at Blushe Boutique, uses the Choose Saline County app to help herself and her employer.

“Honestly, I just use it here at work because I love the clothes, but I’m looking for local places to earn the stars to use here,” she said.

The program is still in its infancy and there are a few issues to work out. Although there are restaurants on the list of winners, none have signed up as redeemers.

“Part of my efforts is to reach out to restaurants. I review which ones earn consumers the most stars,” Diaz said. “The biggest issues we see are that restaurants have so many servers using POS (point of sale) systems and they need to be trained. We have restaurants ready. They just have to find the time to train all the employees.

Not all stores have the same equipment, Diaz said, and some require more steps to complete the task.

A special checkout tab has been added to Blushe Boutique’s POS system at no cost to the business, Welsh said.

“It’s very easy to add it. If someone pays this way, it just shows it was done on their phone. We hit that button and it gives us credit for the sale,” she said.

Hopes are rising that Choose Saline County will become a grassroots program, Smith-Hanes said, if it generates enough sales tax revenue to continue funding it after ARPA money runs out.

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Learn more about Choosing Saline County

Registration and integration link for companies:

User registration link:

Saline County – How it Works

Ryan H. Bowman