Duo sows seeds for savings, profits

Sow Social, a group-buying site, hooks members up with deep local discounts.

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Tami Arias, left, and Gayla Semon of Sow Social. (Dec. 22, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- The sun will soon set on a sweet deal for tanning sessions on Walla Walla's new group buying site Sow Social. But that means another deal is on the horizon.

Launched earlier this month, Sow Social is a local group-buying site, a version of the group-buying concept that's taken consumer spending across the country by storm over the last year.

Founders Tami Arias and Gayla Seymon have spent months building partnerships with area businesses. Through the partnerships, special deals are offered to consumers who sign up for free e-mail alerts about the discounts. Hence the motto of the new site -- "you reap what we sow."

The discounts are an incentive for shoppers to explore somewhere they've never been, book a service they need or return to a favorite business. For proprietors, the deep discounts are an opportunity to build long-term benefits.

"It's getting (customers) in the door," Seymon explained. "For a business, this might not make you money right away, but if you treat them right their loyalty to you will pay off for years to come."

This morning's deal: Six tanning sessions at Tan-A-Rama for $19. The offer -- normally a $38 value -- will have a little more than one day left on the clock before time runs out to buy by the end of today.

Other deals offered in the last month have included discounted coffee cards, spa treatments and restaurant visits, among other things. Seymon said more than 85 coffee cards were sold for Hot Mama's Espresso through the site. Another 17 vouchers were sold for treatments at LeFore's Skin Care & Health Spa.

Educating businesses -- which must cut prices on their special offers by at least half in order to be listed -- as well as consumers has been one of the biggest challenges to getting going, Arias and Seymon said. That and a few technological blips that created some hiccups at first.

But as savvy shoppers have picked up on general mass-market sites such as Groupon and Living Social, the concept of a group site dedicated to local business is generating more traffic, they say.

The group buying concept absolutely exploded in 2010, according to a recent piece on The Wall Street Journal's Smart Money site.

More than 600 social- and group-buying sites, which had not become a household concept until this year, now exist, Smart Money's piece explained.

Apart from the general sites that have built a following, more spa and restaurant groups have formed their own consortia for group-buying. Local newspapers, television stations and phone directories are following suit, Smart Money reported.

What Sow Social does differently is focus exclusively on businesses in the Walla Walla Valley. If the model succeeds, Seymon and Arias want to expand with other group sites in the region.

The two had been working together on a separate Web-based venture when the idea for Sow Social came. They were partners in an online medical staffing company and decided to venture into this new territory together.

Here's what they promise: Every week Sow Social will offer two deals with discounts of up to 70 percent at local restaurants, services, spas, theaters and more. One deal will be offered Monday through Wednesday; the next will come in the latter half of the week. As long as a minimum number of sales are made -- in the case of Tan-A-Rama's offer, 10 people had to buy in (and did) -- the deal stands.

Sow Social promotes the deal on its site. Sales are made in the form of printable vouchers. Once the buyer prints the voucher it can be taken to the merchant for redemption. The merchants are paid through Sow Social, which collects all the payments from the consumers.

Though businesses aren't likely to make money through the discounts they're offering, they do get the chance to gain long-term customers, Arias said.

"These small businesses do not have the budget to advertise unless they have some level of success," Arias said.

Once the customers arrive, it's the operators job to provide customer service and entice them back.

"What we're giving them is the start of a marketing plan," Arias said.

Arias and Seymon make their part of the money through a cut of the sales that take place on the site.

As part of their own long-term strategy, they hope to give some of that money back to the community. For the month of December, Sow Social agreed to commit 50 percent of its profits to Helpline and the Christian Aid Center. They plan to choose other charities at different times of the year to support. As with the business model, the charitable contributions come with one stipulation, Seymon said: "All we know for certain is we want to keep it local."

For more information, go to www.sowsocial.com.

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