Local gift card seeks to ‘buoy’ Portland businesses

Posted Nov. 20, 2013, at 1:47 p.m.
Buoy Local will be accepted in independent shops around Portland starting Nov. 30.
Courtesy of Kai Smith
Buoy Local will be accepted in independent shops around Portland starting Nov. 30.

PORTLAND — Shop local is the mantra these days, but as the holiday rush approaches, even the most community minded consumer might snap up a generic gift card in a hurried moment.

Why let the big box stores and global coffee chains reap all the profits?

Sensing opportunity this season, more than two dozen Portland shops and restaurants are accepting a new gift card called Buoy Local.

“It’s an open-loop gift card. We are creating a community circle of merchants,” said Sean Sullivan, co-founder of the startup that seeks to increase loyalty to Portland’s independent businesses with one universal card.

Consumers can put $5 to $500 on the card that can then be used like a credit card across the city.

“Why buy a gift card for one store, when you can do it for many?” said Sullivan. “We’ve taken the big model and repositioned it for smaller businesses.”

One card used in lieu of cash accepted at a string of independent shops helps people “gift their love of Portland,” he said.

Frame shop owner Tony Cox said he’s excited by the concept.

“It helps people realize the importance of shopping local,” said Cox of Casco Bay Frames and Gallery, where Buoy Local cards will be sold and accepted starting Nov. 30. “It’s better for the community and raises awareness.”

So far, 28 business have signed on to accept the card, from David Wood Clothiers to Salvage BBQ.

“You are giving someone an authentic Portland experience,” said Sullivan, a Bowdoin College graduate who designed products for L.L. Bean. “You can be sure they will have that cobblestone street and brick facade experience of Portland, that authenticity,” he said.

To maintain the technology and market the new concept, Sullivan and startup partner Kai Smith of Portland are seeking crowdfunding online via Indiegogo. So far, they’ve reached $2,855 of their $15,000 goal. Regardless, the cards roll out on Small Business Saturday.

“My partner and I are not getting rich off this idea; it’s a social enterprise. If we can do a lot of good for business owners, it’s a win for us,” said Sullivan, who sees the Buoy Local card as an economic development tool as much as anything else.

With Sea Bags and Longfellow Books on the list, “we have the cornerstones of the community, big names. We aim to have 200 to 300 by the end of 2014.”

Community business advocates like Mary Allen Lindemann, who co-founded Portland Buy Local in 2006, said a local gift card is something her volunteer organization was hard-pressed to accomplish.

“Buy Local always had so much on the “to do” list that there never was time or the staff to focus on the gift card. And then Buoy Local emerged. Two young entrepreneurs came forward with the mission to help customers spend locally,” said Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design. “[Our company] is proud to be one of the businesses participating in the inaugural launch.”

Cards can be purchased starting Nov. 30 at Casco Bay Frames and Gallery, Longfelllow Books and online at BuoyLocal.com

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