Monday, December 10, 2012

UC Smiles = ??

Here and there I've been hearing weird talk about made-up local currency. WHAT is going on? Is this even legal?? Turns out, yes. When done properly a community can have their very own, special, local currency.

On November 1st, UC Smiles (the name of Urbana-Champaign's currency) began to be sold and accepted at various local businesses. The program is in its "pilot" stage. They are keeping it small to work out the kinks and get frequent feedback from the participating businesses.

Photo from UC Smiles Facebook

How It Started
I emailed Seonmi Kim, the Executive Director of UC Smiles to find out how this got started and what the future plans are. Seonmi worked for 10 years as a social activist in South Korea. She researched local currency there and then came to Chambana for Ph. D studies. She found that Chambana had what it takes to start a local currency. Her research showed that spending is high in our community, but much of it goes to big box stores.

Says Seonmi, "According to research, shopping at big box stores often results in less than 43% of the money staying in the community. But if you shop at local stores, around 68% of the money spent stays here. If we have more money in our community, we could create more local jobs for our community members. So, a local currency system is a great community economic development tool."

I find that to be very striking. When buying groceries, etc I would hardly think of who gets the end result, just that I get my goods. To see that I could keep 25% more of the money in the town I love so dearly is very encouraging! It is a simple idea and takes shopping local to a whole new superhero level.

How It Works
Easy! Go to one of the exchange stores (currently International Galleries and Strawberry Fields) and purchase however many you need. They come in $1, $5, and $20 denominations and you purchase them at an even exchange. They have Chambana-centric images on them and are printed in a way that prevents counterfeit. Once you have your Smiles, you simply go shopping at any of the retailers that accept the Smiles! You will receive either Smiles or federal currency as change.

That made me think though... does this really make a difference? I was thinking that the people who would buy Smiles shop local anyway, so it wouldn't create new local traffic. UC Smiles thought of that too, and has a great answer: discounts!

Many of the stores that accept UC Smiles offer a discount to shoppers using the currency. For example, Priceless Books in Urbana gives a 10% discount to shoppers using UC Smiles, Strawberry Fields gives 5%. You can see the full list of the 50+ participating retailers and discounts offered here. With a good discount, a person that already shops locally may make an extra trip or two to a participating store. Fun fact: you can buy Smiles for friends/family as gifts too. It is like giving a gift card to any of 50+ retailers!

Current Status/Future Plans
UC Smiles is in its infancy, but is taking cues from other successful programs. Massachusetts area currency "Berkshares" has been going strong since 2006. There have been over $2.3 million in Berkshares circulated in their community (Source). UC Smiles are currently centered in Urbana for its pilot program, but plan to extend throughout Champaign and surrounding areas in the future. Currently, $97,000 in Smiles have been printed for use in the UC Smiles Program.

You can currently buy UC Smiles at International Galleries in Lincoln Square Mall or Strawberry Fields. International Galleries accepts credit cards in exchange for UC Smiles. They donate the credit card fee to make it more convenient for shoppers. Soon, Smiles will be purchasable online.

UC Smiles customer at Cafe Zojo. Pic from UC Smiles Facebook.

My first thought on all this was "is this real life?" but after doing a little research and hearing the case for local currency I'm totally on board. I can't wait for it to extend to some of my favorite shops in Champaign, but until then, you'll find me in Urbana pickin' these bad boys up and getting discounts!

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