By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
Nobody is questioning the benefits of the “Shop Surprise” text messaging program.
After all, it connects Surprise residents with deals and news for local businesses.
But how to pay for it is another question.
That’s what the Surprise City Council is dealing with after voting earlier this month to give the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce only one-fourth of the $40,000 it had asked for to help grow the program for the next fiscal year.
“I think the Shop Local program is fantastic,” said District 6 Councilmember Chris Judd, who serves the southeastern part of Surprise. “It absolutely can’t go away. I do have some concerns with the costs.”
Instead of giving the Chamber all the money it asked for to market the program next fiscal year, District 2 Councilmember Nancy Hayden, who serves Sun City Grand, Bell West Ranch and portions of Arizona Traditions, suggested the Council roll the money into upcoming negotiations to extend the official relationship between the Surprise and the Chamber.
Economic Development Director Jeanine Jerkovic said that new contract will probably come before the Council at a work session in late April with consideration likely in May.
The “Shop Surprise” text service has been giving local residents discounts for nearly two years.
The idea was borne out of necessity when the Bell Road bridge work over Grand Avenue affected numerous businesses in the area for most of 2017.
Looking to find a modern way to connect residents to those struggling businesses, the Chamber developed a text messaging plan where residents can opt-in to receive discounts right on their phone.
The Chamber decided to forego emails because studies show only 25 to 30 percent of them are ever opened. Most go unread or in the trash.
“But with SMS marketing, which is getting text messages to your phones, 95 percent will check their text messages within three minutes,” said Raoul Sada, the CEO of the Surprise Chamber.
The program was deemed a success when it started, winning multiple awards, including “Best Practice in Innovation.” Chamber statistics show 177 businesses have signed on to the service – included those that aren’t Chamber members – and about 3,000 residents have opted-in to the service.
“We think it’s highly effective,” Mr. Sada said. “We think it’s unique. It’s won awards, and it’s the only program really that does a good job that engages consumers, local businesses and engages the city.”
Mr. Sada saw the power of the text messages early on. When Café Rio opened its doors in Surprise at 13968 W. Waddell Road, it contacted the Chamber that morning at 7:30 to let it know about the grand opening.
By 9 a.m., up to 300 people were already in line with their phones after getting the text from Shop Surprise.
“One of the takeaways is it’s a communications vehicle,” Mr. Sada said. “And I think that kind of illustrates how it can be used in different formats.”
In addition to the use of “Shop Surprise” for deals, grand openings and communicating messages, the Chamber has also tapped it to survey users about their experiences and to learn about some of their shopping habits.
From that data, it learned far and away most users heard about the service through Facebook (26.3 percent), and nearly all of them (98 percent) are interested in eating and drinking deals.
Surprisingly, nearly 80 percent of the respondents were female. But notably, nearly all of the were interested in receiving more than one deal per day.
Mr. Sada said he wants to improve the quality of the deals to help improve the opt-out rate. For example, an unpopular spam-like “insurance quote” ad that was once texted out received a high number of customers opting out of the service.
“We need to screen the quality of the details,” Mr. Sada said.
Mr. Sada also stresses customer loyalty programs for businesses, something “Shop Surprise” could be a part of.
“For some of the new businesses, they’ve got to give away something free to get a customer to come back,” Mr. Sada said. “But if they come back once a month four or five times a year, it is more valuable than that one visit.”
City councilmembers have expressed wide support for the program, and they have been a financial backer from the start. In the fiscal year 2018 budget, the city voted to give $55,000 to help launch the program. A year later, the city kicked in $40,000 more for costs associated with market adaptation.
However, the Chamber ran out of that second round of money in September, meaning they had to lay off a part-timer worker who managed the site.
More importantly it meant the last holiday season went by with virtually no promotion and nobody really noticing.
“The fault lies with me,” Jerkovic told the Council. “There was an opportunity for our department to provide a holiday sponsorship to assist in the interim to make sure that during the holidays that the funds continued.”
But Jerkovic told the board that a packed agenda last fall let the matter slip by.
The Chamber came asking for $40,000 to monetize the advertising services for the program, but Mr. Sada said the Chamber was hoping it would be the last time it would have to ask for money because it was designed to be “self-sustaining.”
“We’re sensitive to the fact that we want to have balanced revenue coming in from multiple sources and we’re not overly dependent on a single funding source,” Mr. Sada said.
But the Chamber asked for the money again this year to help bring back the part-time worker and help out with costs associated with marketing and advertising.
The Chamber has already purchased a million messages in bulk for $7,000 to keep overall costs down per message.
“The more you buy, the cheaper the rates,” Mr. Sada said. “The Board was committed to a two-year commitment.”
This board has done a good job with what they’ve inherited a year and a half ago,” said District 3 Councilmember Patrick Duffy, who serves southwest Surprise. “I don’t want them going into cash reserves right now because we can’t come to an agreement. Ten (thousand-dollars) is the way to go, then let’s come (back) for the long-term deal.”
To sign up for the “Shop Surprise” deals, log on to www.surpriseregionalchamber.com.
Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @thestonecave.