The Bernal Bucks Card Stars in Today’s Wall Street Journal

Bernal Bucks Spoken Here

Well, what do you know? There’s a big article about the Bernal Bucks card in today’s Wall Street Journal:

In June, a group of businesses in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood started signing up residents for a debit card that offers 5% of purchases back in a local currency called Bernal Bucks when residents shop in the community. The move follows that of two nonprofits in Marin County—Coastal Marin Fund and FairBucks—which began minting their own $3 coins last year.

The idea is to raise resident awareness about supporting small businesses in an era of big-box national chains, and to find a new way to raise funds for local causes.

“Neighborhoods are taking their economic destiny into their own hands by looking at the money that is circulating in them,” said Arno Hesse, one of the creators of Bernal Bucks.

Community currencies exist world-wide and are legal in the U.S. so long as they don’t pose as official American greenbacks. Communities offering them include the Berkshires region in western Massachusetts, while a group in Oakland is working on a currency known as Alternative Currency for Oakland Residents and Neighbors, or ACORN.

But they all face the challenge of persuading merchants and residents to commit to adopting them for daily use. Some past local currencies, such as one called Berkeley BREAD that started in the late 1990s, ended in 2003 after its coordinator left and wasn’t replaced. There also was a program called Sonoma County Community Cash that died after about two years around 2000.

The Bernal Bucks debit card grew out of past attempts by Bernal Heights merchants to reward residents for shopping locally, including stickers placed on real $5 and $10 bills that could be redeemed for incentives. Last year, Bernal Heights resident Mr. Hesse set out to find a way to use technology to improve on that idea.

In June, Mr. Hesse’s software company, Clearbon Inc., and local merchants teamed up with the Community Trust credit union to issue a Visa debit card with the Bernal Bucks loyalty program integrated into it, one of the first such programs in the nation. For every $200 that users spend at participating local businesses, they receive 10 Bernal Bucks. Users can spend their Bernal Bucks on goods and services sold by participating businesses at the rate of one per U.S. dollar, or can choose to donate them to community nonprofits.

Darcy Lee, owner of a Bernal Heights gift shop called Heartfelt, said she signed up her business for the program in the hopes of attracting “a repeat local, loyal customer that is making a conscious effort to shop in the neighborhood.”

Merchants such as Ms. Lee agree to give up 5% of the value of goods and services paid for with Bernal Bucks cards. This goes into a fund that users can tap when they spend their Bernal Bucks at participating merchants. Ms. Lee said the effort is worthwhile for marketing purposes because many of the products she sells, such as wrapping paper, “you could easily go to get at Target.”

Last Sunday, Samuel Fajner, a five-year resident of Bernal Heights, used his Bernal Bucks card to buy groceries at Good Life food store on the neighborhood’s Cortland Avenue. “I make an effort to not go to the big chain stores,” said Mr. Fajner, 36, who signed up for the program in June and has accumulated about $120 in Bernal Bucks.

So far, more than 20 of the businesses along the Cortland shopping corridor have joined the program. The hard part is persuading more residents to sign up, say organizers and local businesses. Mr. Hesse declined to say how many people have joined, or how many Bernal Bucks have been spent so far, but said the transaction volume of card users has doubled every month.

(The WSJ has a paywall, but if you want to read the whole thing, click here, then click the headline “Community Currencies Aim to Aid Merchants.”)

Oh, and check it out… the WSJ illustrated the story with a spiffy photo of Miss Darcy Lee from Heartfelt:

I confess, I’ve been meaning to write about the Bernal Bucks card for a long time (and I’ve got a half-written post somewhere in the queue to prove it.) But I’m perfectly happy that the WSJ beat me to it.

I’ve also been using the card for four months, and it definitely works as advertised. There’s a bit more hands-on management required than a typical debit card. Most notably, the stored-value balance of the Bernal Bucks card must be reloaded manually when it drops too low. (Unlike, say, a Clipper Card or FastPass, the stored value does not replenish automatically.) But reloading takes just a minute or two, and you can do it online, so it’s no big deal once I got used to it.

Personally, I think the biggest upside of the Bernal Bucks card is psychological. Using the card to make purchases has a curious, consciousness-raising  effect. I notice that I gravitate toward business that accept the Bernal Bucks card because I want to use the card — and vice-versa. Honestly, it’s like I get a little shot of endorphins every I use the card to make a purchase, because the physical act of handing my card to a merchant represents the completion of an intentional YIMBY gesture to support local businesses. And really, we all want to do that, right? RIGHT??!!

Congrats to the Bernal Bucks folks for the great write-up in today’s WSJ, and click away to get a Bernal Bucks card of your very own.

PHOTOS: Top, Telstar Logistics; Card image, Bernal Bucks; Darcy Lee, Wall Street Journal

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9 Responses to The Bernal Bucks Card Stars in Today’s Wall Street Journal

  1. GG says:

    What a great idea! I don’t use debit cards, but if I did, I would get one even though I live in Glen Park — I come to Bernal to shop and/or eat/drink coffee at least once a week. All SF neighborhoods should start something up like this! Thanks for sharing.

  2. chuck b. says:

    Now that credit card companies are cutting back on their cash rewards programs, $10 back for $200 that I’m going to spend anyway is a good deal. The debit card part is a hassle compared to a credit card, but that is offset by the satisfaction gained from keeping my money in the neighborhood.

  3. Joe Thomas says:

    “it’s like I get a little shot of endorphins”

    I bet it’s oxytocin.

  4. patty royall says:

    I would love to cross-post this on the MissionParents list serve but haven’t the slightest idea if that’s allowed or doable.

  5. Janna says:

    Thanks for highlighting this great little local currency in Bernal! I’ve had a Bernal Bucks card for a few months and love using it. I also gravitate towards the businesses that are part of the program and I think I spend more money at participating businesses knowing that Im getting 5% back. I tend to splurge a bit more when using the card. I’m happy to see Locavore, Front Porch, and Liberty Cafe have joined but am looking forward to more restaurants joining. I agree about the little rush when using it. Don’t know if that will change over time, but for now, at least there’s something new and fun about spending money!

  6. jack says:

    Just sent in my application. Looking forward to using it.

  7. BH lovr says:

    If Good Life would lower their prices just a bit, I would consider it!

  8. ashley Wolff says:

    Great story! I did the graphic for the logo and it is a thrill to see it in Bernalwood.

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