Local startup offers new take on buying local | December 26, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



News - December 26, 2012

Local startup offers new take on buying local

by Dave Boyce

Here's a thorny issue: For decades, merchants on Main Street have been watching as their customers are snatched away by discount giants like Walmart, Costco and Home Depot. To thwart big-box encroachments, local governments sometimes enact ordinances but it's often just a matter of time before these outsized competitors establish themselves. As if online competition were not enough, Amazon.com is becoming bricks-and-mortar with its network of warehouses and its plans for same-day delivery of online purchases.

Outspent and out-maneuvered, Main Street merchants and communities turn to "shop local" campaigns in hopes of maintaining community ambience and circulating local dollars locally, but it's a rear-guard battle. Long have Goliaths been stomping on their livelihoods. Are there no Davids, no intrepid slingers of stones?

Well, there's Yiftee.com: that's gift plus nifty plus "Yippee!" This year-old Menlo Park start-up expands the idea of shopping local with online vouchers. Friends, associates and strangers can engage in long-distance gift giving, including to victims of natural disasters. The key to Yiftee's mission: the gifts can be picked up from merchants local to the recipients' communities.

When a recipient redeems a Yiftee voucher at a local checkout counter, it's as reliable as a credit card transaction, said Yiftee chief executive officer, co-founder and Woodside resident Donna Novitsky in an interview.

Yiftee offers small merchants a way to participate effectively in online commerce despite a lack of technical savvy and without the associated costs of a website. "We want these small businesses to survive. We want them to thrive. And they need tools," said Woodside resident and Yiftee co-founder Lori Laub in an interview. "We're giving them (a) tool ... and it doesn't cost them anything to use it and participate."

Bookmarking Yiftee's website yields the link: "Yiftee - Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness," and it does have the makings of a virtuous network: satisfaction in giving, joy in receiving, and perhaps new confidence in being the Main Street merchant in the middle. But to get to that happy place, Yiftee must first become a household word.

A natural disaster could be an opportunity: maybe people could set up Yiftee online vouchers for stricken residents in communities also home to stricken local merchants. Ms. Laub grew up in North Dakota and saw a tornado destroy her hometown's businesses, including her father's. "Their lives were very, very impacted for a long time," she said.

Yiftee has been on the ground in the three New York City communities of Red Hook in Brooklyn, Rockaway in Queens, and on Staten Island. Relief work in the wake of super storm Sandy is still going on, according to Yiftee's Michealene Risley, also a Woodside resident. As of mid-December, according to Red Cross spokeswoman Daphne Hart, her organization had served more than 4.2 million meals and snacks in the New York communities hit hard by the storm. On a recent December weekend, the Red Cross distributed more than 10,000 items associated with neighborhood and home clean-up kits.

Some 9,400 customers were still without electric power on Dec. 11 in New York City, according to a spokesperson from the mayor's press office.

So far, the participating Brooklyn merchants tend to sell prepared food and beverages. The Yiftee website shows gifts that include a Cappucino or latte ($3.70) or an artisanal sandwich ($5.60) at Kave Espresso Bar & Event Space; a beer flight ($8) or breakfast ($17) at The Kent Ale House; a one-month membership ($90) at Chalk Gyms. On Staten Island, gifts can include a haircut ($35 for men and $45 for women) at Avanti Hair Salon and a pizza ($23 to $28 or build your own) at Goodfella's Pizza.

Pending the participation of stores selling hardware, clothing and toys for residents there who need them, Yiftee has volunteer intermediaries on the ground who will make local purchases of these items, Ms. Novitsky said.

A friend from Menlo Park can celebrate the birthday of a friend in San Diego by letting her know of a gift of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio ($8.45) waiting for her at Sheraton Suites Symphony Hall Sky Lobby Bar. She can reciprocate with a cup of handmade drip coffee ($2.75) and sliders ($8.45) at Lutticken's at 3535 Alameda de las Pulgas in West Menlo Park.

The website lists merchant names and addresses imported from the Foursquare social networking site in cities and towns all over the country: Mocha Madness in Pocatello, Idaho, for example, or the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Many may never have heard of Yiftee, but a gift from a thoughtful someone through that merchant is apparently redeemable. "Walk into a cafe. They've never heard of us but you can present your Yiftee and they'll redeem it," Ms. Novitsky said.

An 'Aha' moment

Yiftee has nine employees in an office on Sand Hill Road. "We all sit in one room. There are eight desks and we end up sharing," Ms. Laub said.

"Everybody knows what's going on with everything," Ms. Novitsky added. The company will eventually have more than nine employees, she said, but "we would much rather be a small group with a big impact."

The idea emerged over thinking about group discount coupons. Yiftee talked to over 100 small businesses and really tried to understand what makes them tick, Ms. Laub said. It's hard to keep the doors open, and an unhealthy local economy will drive down housing values and school quality. "Your downtown, your community is what holds all these people together. Who's going to sponsor the Little League?"

Small business owners help each other, Ms. Novitsky said. "They talk with each other. They're competitive, but they're all in it together."

The effect of a big-box store is cumulative, Ms. Laub said. "If I go to Home Depot, I might as well go to the place next door for my groceries," she said. "You don't want to take the neighborhood down."

Some merchants they talked to "tried Groupon," she said. But rather than customers looking for bargains, they want people who can fall in love with a place, she said — people like the people who would send Yiftee vouchers as heartfelt gestures.

"We came up with this micro-profit idea and it was kind of an 'Aha,'" Ms. Novitsky said.

Yiftee's target audience is women 25 to 50 years old, women who, when Yiftee was explained to them, responded: "That would be great. I would send those all day long."


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