Could merchant stamps help?

Books Inc. does it. So does Tomatina, Papa Murphy’s pizza, Borders Books and a handful of other businesses.

What they do is reward their customers, and themselves, by offering a discount or free product after a preset number of purchases. It’s the same kind of promotional strategy that once was part of shopping nearly everywhere in Alameda, when paper stamps were provided to customers. The customer collected the stamps in a little book and when the book(s) were full, they took them to any merchant in town who offered the stamps and redeemed them for products.

The stamp era ended in Alameda sometime around 1990. But maybe 2009 is the time to reconsider such a strategy. It’s good for the customer and it’s good for the business. And it’s no news that both groups are in very real need of help. Unemployment continues to grow in record numbers, forcing people to radically cut back on expenditures and in turn, forcing businesses to downsize or close, creating even fewer jobs and forcing even more people to watch every penny.

A town needs commerce, not just to feed and clothe its residents, but to generate sales tax revenues. Alameda has already lost its lion’s share of sales taxes from the exodus of car dealerships along the north end of Park Street. Add to that the recession, the threat of losing gas taxes to the state (which may partially or fully close three of our bridges) and jobs falling down the rabbit hole and it’s easy to understand why sales tax revenue is crucial.

Besides encouraging customers to return to their businesses, the stamps would also encourage residents to buy in Alameda whenever possible. Supporting our local merchants isn’t just a sentimental term, it’s a pragmatic, logical way to keep our town in running order. It’s a way to help maintain, even gain, jobs for unemployed residents. And it’s a way to bolster property values. Not many people are inclined to move to a town where the downtown is progressively boarded up.

We’re fortunate that new retailers are still moving here, helping fill the vacancies in our shopping districts. But we’ll need more than good fortune to get through this fiscal desert. We’ll need to be more creative than ever before, whether its stamps, contests or whatever we, as business people and as residents, can do to help support us all.