More stick, less carrot this shopping season

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

They're cracking down on Shopper's Reward! Many residents have taken advantage of the program, run by the Downtown Oak Park Business District, more familiarly known as DTOP, for many years now. Apparently, the district thinks we took too much advantage.

Shopper's Reward works as an incentive to shop locally, in businesses located from Harlem to Forest avenues, Ontario Street to the Metra tracks. And it works — for me anyway. I've been taking part in the program for years … on the up and up … for the most part. We never submitted duplicate receipts, photocopies, or credit card statements, all of which have been banned under the "New Rules." 

My friends and I did combine receipts to fulfill the demanding requirements of the program: Seven different shops, at least $25 per shop, totaling $500. For that you earn a $50 packet of coupons. But all the purchases were legit, all came from Downtown Oak Park from Nov. 1 through Christmas Day, and, most importantly to the merchants of DTOP, many were purchased primarily because of the Shopper's Reward Program incentive. I try to "shop local" as much as I can, but I would have spent about half of what I shelled out each November and December were it not for the incentive program.

And I expect that's how it is for most participants.

So messing with a system that works seems risky. For instance, the new rules no longer allow gift card purchases. But by nixing gift cards, DTOP could lose far more in purchases than they stand to prevent in scams.

Many business owners benefit from those gift card purchases. Approximately 40 of the businesses on the participating merchant list, for instance, serve food and/or drink. I purchase a number of gift cards each holiday from these establishments (Cooper's Hawk, Lake Street Kitchen + Bar, Bar Louie, La Notte, etc.). Especially affected will be the Lake Theatre, the Book Table, The Gap, Old Navy, Jayne Boutique and Fleet Feet (it's much more efficient to buy a gift card than try to buy clothes or athletic shoes for someone, and often the recipients end up spending more on top of the gift card amount). There are also no less than 13 salons, hair stylists, barbers and nail studios participating, for whom gift cards would be the obvious option.

People will always cheat, but in my experience scammers are a relatively small minority compared to the rule-followers. So to the scofflaw shoppers like the woman who buys gifts each year for the receipts then after getting her coupon books, returns the gifts, thanks a lot for ruining it for the rest of us. 

It's understandable that the business district wants to tighten things up, but some of the new rules serve as a disincentive to participating in the program, which is self-defeating. 

Incentives are multidimensional. I not only shopped more in Downtown Oak Park, I also spent more than I normally would have because of the reward. The incentive made me more generous, partly for selfish reasons, which is an interesting paradox. In fact, it's the paradox at the heart of capitalism. Imposing discipline and a stronger sense of ethics on those who scam the system is another interesting paradox. I thought the goal was getting local residents to shop here instead of donating their sales tax to the city of Oak Brook, which doesn't need it. But if the goal is really to get the most shoppers with the fewest scammers, the results might be very different.

As always, there are unintended consequences. One of the new disciplines imposed allows only itemized receipts showing what you purchased. But at least three restaurants, Munch, Cozy Corner, and Delia's, use the old-fashioned heavy paper-stock checks with detachable stubs at the bottom, which serve as receipts. The stubs have the name of the restaurant and the total, but according to the new rules, those aren't acceptable. It would be nice if DTOP and their participating members were on the same page here. 

The new rules also don't allow tips to be included in restaurant totals, but tipping is 20% of the price of a dinner out. That seems needlessly stingy on the part of the reward program and also the restaurant owners, who apparently don't consider tips as spending if it goes directly to their employees. 

Some of the new rules seem reasonable: showing a driver's license or state ID when you turn in your receipts, limiting households to two reward booklets ($50 each) per household (although that limit serves as a disincentive to extra spending).

I enjoy shopping in DTOP (and the Hemingway District, Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street, which doesn't have an incentive program) and lest I get branded as overly critical, let me extend a couple of kudos: Careful Peach Boutique is my favorite store even though I hardly ever purchase anything. It's a work of art, great for atmospheric browsing — and they have, by far, the best storefront windows in the village. Check out the flocked garland. And I had breakfast at Cozy Corner for the first time since their transformation (three years back). The place has real style now. All the dishes are square, or rectangular, even the coffee cups, and the menu is much more progressive than its longtime incarnation as an informal neighborhood dive.

So I hate to quibble, but I just don't think the new Shopper's Reward rules show a firm grasp of consumer psychology — and the nature of incentives. 

It's a shame, in a way, that Oak Parkers need incentives to shop local, but that, evidently, is the reality. On the bright side, the incentives draw me into shops I never would have given a second glance, participating stores with colorful names like 16 Suitcases, Midwest Microblading, Scratch 'n' Sniff, Seven Point, Spenga, Sugarcup Trading, Two Story Farmhouse and Wise Cup.

In fact, I'm trying to figure out what kind of Christmas presents I can buy from Seven Point, the medicinal marijuana dispensary, for that special someone on my list.  

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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