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One on One: Jim Vesper, MyChoice Upper Cumberland

Liz Engel Clark
Tuesday, Nov 6, 2012


Each MyChoice customer receives a membership card and instant savings at participating businesses.

In any given year, a business will spend its advertising dollars in a variety of ways – from print to television to radio – but one new concept that’s been circulating in the Upper Cumberland in recent months is looking to take those marketing measures to a whole new – and commissioned-based – level.

It’s been more than two years since Jim Vesper brought his own Knoxville business onto the MyChoice LLC network and more than one year since he purchased the company’s franchise rights in the UC. MyChoice, a discount card/customer loyalty program, boasts a growing network of retailers – both national and local – and offers a unique, if not off-the-cuff, way to gain – and retain – customers. Shoppers who carry the MyChoice card, likewise, receive rebates for spending, creating a win-win for both an owner and buyer.

At least that’s Vesper’s thought. He’s slowly built up the regional base here – more than two dozen area merchants have signed on thus far, from 32 Degrees Frozen Yogurt in Cookeville to Melton Plumbing in Crossville – but with today’s tight advertorial budgets, just how does MyChoice set itself apart?

UPPER CUMBERLAND BUSINESS JOURNAL: TALK ABOUT MYCHOICE’S BEGINNINGS AND GIVE US A LITTLE INFORMATION ON THE COMPANY ITSELF.

Jim Vesper: MyChoice is truly a paradigm shift in how marketing professionals relate to their small business clients. We are the leaders in performance-based advertising; businesses pay no advertising fee until after we bring them a new or returning customer.

We hang our hat on the fact our CEO is somebody who’s been helping promote small businesses for 34 years. His name is John Davis, and John is the CEO of Tradebank International, a barter exchange organization. They’ve been around for nearly 35 years and have about 16,000 small businesses that they currently promote. His desire was to create a cash-based system that would allow, initially, member businesses to benefit from more cash coming into their stores. What has developed is the MyChoice concept, which took about 10 years to bring to fruition, and, thus far it’s far exceeding the growth rate of Tradebank.

To give you an idea of how (much it’s exceeding), it took 12 years for Tradebank to establish 20 regional franchises. It took 14 months for MyChoice. Our income is based on our performance, and merchants like the idea of having somebody working for them on a commission-only basis. Basically, if I’m not bringing them cardholders, I’m not earning any income. People get the cash concept. They get the loyalty concept. They get the “pay when you do something for me” concept. That’s a big draw for business owners.

I, personally, brought my own small business onto the MyChoice network in April 2010. (At the time) Knoxville(’s franchise) had been purchased and was not for sale, and I was encouraged to purchase the Cumberland territory. I did that in April 2011.

I come at this program from the perspective of a small business owner. I’ve worn the hats, I have made payroll, I have guessed on advertising. So I understood where John was going and what he was trying to do.

What I first saw was the community of other businesses that I was part of. Maybe you’ve been a member of a BNI group or some kind of networking referral group. I liken it to that. I was part of a community of other businesses that had an active interest in making their customers my customers. That was the immediate draw for me.

UCBJ: OUTSIDE OF YOUR PERSONAL TIES WITH MYCHOICE – BOTH AS MEMBER AND NOW FRANCHISE OWNER – WHAT MAKES THIS PARTICULAR PROGRAM ATTRACTIVE TO A BUSINESS?

JV: For most business owners, first and foremost, they’d have a turnkey loyalty card that allows them to take care of their existing customers. In a tight economy, one of the worst things you can do is spend money prospectively trying to induce that new person, and you end up spending more money to bring in that person than you’re spending marketing to your existing customer base. We provide a way to say thank you to the good customers you’ve had – for many years, in some cases – by giving them a discount. All our local merchants give an instant minimum 10 percent discount when our card is presented. They control the discount. And chances are, if you give customers a discount, they’ll spend more money with you.
Secondly, we are truly performance-based advertising. Only when somebody shows up and says, “I want that new dress,” does the business owner pay. The customer gets their 10 percent, and we take a small percentage of that retail transaction as our fee.

(For the customer) we provide a savings above and beyond what they can typically get in the retail setting. We have our online shopping mall (ShopMyChoice.com), and we have about 570 businesses that are part of our national retail network. A lot of big names are working with us to provide savings to our cardholders: Walmart, Sears, CompUSA, New Balance, Office Depot, Best Buy. It goes on and on. We have shopping opportunities for people, whatever their interests are. And when they check out, they can bring any promotional coupons, any discounts or relationships they have, and they’ll also get a rebate on their MyChoice card anywhere from 2-25 percent.

Every transaction that the card creates, we send an e-receipt to the person. They’re able to see how much money they’ve saved with that business, and then month-to-date and year-to-date savings with the card that was swiped.

UCBJ: ARE BUSINESS OWNERS OFTEN SKEPTICAL OF THIS PROGRAM? WHAT’S YOUR SALES PITCH, BECAUSE IT’S HARD TO SELL ADVERTISING IN ANY FORM THESE DAYS.

JV: Well, first, I ask them if they carry any loyalty cards. How many? What (MyChoice) does is that. (I say) You’re not a Costco, you’re not a Sam’s Club, you need your advertising dollars to help promote you in the community, but you don’t have unlimited resources. What we do is we give you a loyalty card, and we’ll continually advertise your value to your customer. If I could tell you, Mr. Business Owner, that I would be working for you, that only when I’m successful in creating card activity in your business, would you pay me for my services, is that a proposition you’ve ever been offered by any other advertiser? And they say, “No, I’ve never heard anybody willing to work on a commission basis for advertising.”

Our proposition to a business owner is that, in this economy, we’re helping promote them in a very accountable way. And I can get a business involved in our program for $295. That includes a full-blown website, if they don’t have one, and all the marketing tools we have. That $295 is part of our set-up fee and our Web development, software installation and marketing materials, but we even sweeten the pot. We give them 10 MyChoice loyalty cards to give out – or sell. For every customer they put into a card, when that customer shops with another local business or with one of our national merchants, they earn a percentage of that retail spending. We have a television network we’re trying to bring online. We also have a digital signage program that’s put in stores on a loop, showing all the local businesses that participate.

We have a minimum maintenance fee of $20 a month to maintain the network. We offer limited exclusivity by territory. Also, we offer for the business owner an opportunity to market their products and services to a regional or national audience as well (through the online mall).

And from that point on, it’s on an at-will basis. We don’t ask them to sign a contract. So far, I haven’t had anybody balk at that price point.

(For the consumer) It’s $30 for a MyChoice card, and when they’re issued, they’re good for two years.

UCBJ: HOW HAS THE REACTION BEEN THUS FAR IN THE UC? WHAT ARE YOUR SHORT-TERM AND LONG-TERM GOALS?

JV: It’s been a little slower than I would have liked. I think it’s partly the economy and partly the amount of time on the ground that I’ve been able to spend here. But the relationships I have developed thus far are positioning me very well to come out of the gate strong. I do believe we’re on the cusp of adding 25-30 businesses before the end of the year, and if that follows suit, my goal is to have between 250-300 merchants in the Cumberlands (overall) actively working with us.

I haven’t seen the latest national numbers, but I’d like to think we can get 10 percent of the population here holding these cards, which would be about 33,000 people. That’s a short-term goal for me. We’ve got about 125 businesses in the state of Tennessee on the MyChoice network, and we’re trying to create a “Yellow Pages” of those businesses. I do think, as we create and balance our roster, we will cover every business category. We also have a very unique power of fundraising; we want to eventually take over for the SmartCard.

I’m at a really good point because I know how much money the company’s invested in the program. I know who’s directing it and his experience. At the end of the day, we’re saving money for people, we’re putting more dollars into the community’s hands and we’re creating more activity at small businesses.

For more information about MyChoice, call Jim Vesper at (931) 854-5599. To find out more about MyChoice shopping options in the Upper Cumberland, including advertising discounts in the UCBJ, visit www.shopmychoice.com/uppercumberlandbusinessjournal/index.php.


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