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Currents: smartcard goes to town

SmartCard Expands Services to New London Stores and Restaurants

“This is the best idea SGA has had so far. Get it done!”

“SGA rules.”

“This would be awesome!!!”

These anonymous comments, which appeared in a fall 2009 survey conducted by the Student Government Association (SGA), reflect the majority view of students in favor of extending the use of SmartCards to local stores and restaurants. Beginning this semester, students, faculty and staff can use their college I.D.s/SmartCards at Colonial Pharmacy, Ellie's Café and Deli, The Flying Goose Brew Pub, MacKenna's Restaurant and Screwie Lewiez. If college community members use their cards frequently at these venues the number of off-campus vendors that accept SmartCards is likely to grow.

SGA Vice President Aimee Cates '10 led the effort to take SmartCard to off-campus businesses and was the first student to use her card in town. The transaction at Colonial Pharmacy, which took place at a register in the back of the store, was quick and easy. Cates, a business administration major, heads the SGA's Issues Committee and first learned of students' interest in this new service last year.

“This will be a great resource for students,” she says. “(It) will allow for parents to further help their students with different needs when they're away from home, and act as a debit card for those who don't already have one.”

Cates thinks local restaurants and stores will become popular places for students to use their SmartCards. If the program brings more students to the participating businesses, she hopes other businesses students visit often, such as Hannaford's and Pizza Chef, will opt in as well.

“I believe there is a lot of interest,” she says. “There's already a buzz around school and it seems that students are very excited.”

The Cost-Benefit Analysis for Businesses

For local businesses, the SmartCard program comes with both costs and potential benefits. The card is operated through Blackboard's BbOne program and requires businesses to lease separate scanners for $35 per month for each cash register. Blackboard also takes a small percentage off the top of every transaction.

For Screwie Lewiez co-owner Wally Borgen, the costs will be well worth it if the SmartCard makes it more convenient and likely that Colby-Sawyer students will seek out her restaurant. Borgen and her husband were among the first business owners to sign up for the service because students—and their families—have been encouraging them to accept SmartCards for the last year.

Borgen knows her business, and her customers. With advanced business degrees from Pace University and Northern Illinois University, she teaches courses as an associate adjunct faculty member in the college's Business Administration Department. As owner of the restaurant in closest proximity to the college, she also knows students well enough to understand that the convenience factor is critical to bringing them in the door.

Borgen suspects the SmartCard program could strengthen town-gown relations by drawing more students into the local community. “We're pleased to be part of the local and college communities, and we hope this will encourage students to spend more time in town. Anything that makes it more convenient for students to come here is what we want.”

Carol Gouin, a manager at Colonial Pharmacy, is similarly practical and optimistic about the store's decision to support SmartCard service. Many students already shop here for their prescriptions, make-up and school supplies, and the option to use their SmartCards, usually underwritten by their families, may simplify their finances.

“A sale is a sale, and SmartCard is just like any other tender,” Gouin says. “We feel the college is a big part of the community, and it's important and worthwhile for us to support our customers' needs.”

Making It Happen

Once the SGA survey made students' opinions clear, Aimee Cates scheduled a meeting with Financial Services to talk with college staff about expanding the use of SmartCards, a service that students at many other colleges already enjoy. She worked with Treasurer Doug Lyon, Financial Services' Operations Manager Marge Huston and Lisa Windsor, applications analyst in Information Resources, to get the service up and running.

“I originally set up the meeting just to ask if the program could be a possibility, and they immediately started putting it into motion,” Cates says. “The people that I worked with have been very helpful and fun to work with.”

Windsor oversees the “back end” of SmartCard services, the technology applications to run the program. She recently completed configuration changes to accommodate the off-campus merchant program, and installed secure communications equipment for each participating merchant as well.

From a college community member's point of view, off-campus purchases with SmartCards will essentially be the same as those on campus. “Their card is swiped, the balance is checked and the purchase is completed,” Windsor says. “The amount of the purchase is immediately withdrawn from the cardholder's SmartCard account.”

The college recognized and wanted to support the program's benefits for students and families, according to Lyon. “The SmartCard program in the community is a service requested by students, so the first reason we supported the idea is that that we try to respond to student requests,” he says. “Many colleges have this kind of program and it's a convenience for students, but it's also a debit card, not a credit card, so it prevents the unwise use of credit and the accumulation of debt. Because families can put money on the card on-line, it facilitates the movement of cash from families to students. It's a nice, easy way for families to support their son or daughter at college.”

The more widely SmartCards are accepted, the less cash students will have to rely on, which diminishes the potential loss or theft of cash, Lyon points out. “If a card is stolen or lost it can quickly be deactivated and replaced with no loss of cash,” he explains. “It's also a way that student spending makes its way to the local vendors, and in this economy, every little bit helps. It encourages students to use local vendors and that's positive for the entire New London community.”

Huston worked with Blackboard's BbOne staff, supplying them with information from Cates about which local businesses students were most interested in. Bbne contacted businesses directly to explain and set up the program for those who wished to participate.

Among the colleges it serves, BbOne maintains that off-campus vendors initially take in about 10 percent of the funds that flow through the SmartCard program, and over time, that amount can increase to as much as 30 percent. Close to $400,000 per year passes through Colby-Sawyer's on-campus SmartCard program for dining services, bookstore purchases and laundry services, and the college makes no profit from these sales, according to Lyon and Huston.

“We're starting with a small group of businesses in town to get the program up and running, and if merchants start having good results it should grow,” says Huston, “but the reverse could also happen.”

She praised SGA Vice President Cates for bringing students' preferences and ideas forward and for keeping the lines of communication open, including over the holiday break, throughout the process of expanding SmartCard service.

Now college community members have an even better reason to grab their SmartCards and head into town to meet some new people and explore New London.

-Kimberly Swick Slover