Deal makers: how two local women launched money-saving websites

Jolon Hull had never used a coupon in her life until last year. Then everything changed, and the frugality queen was born.

Cindy Curtis left a successful career in sales and now pounds the pavement to find unique and new businesses around Grand Rapids.

Both West Michigan women believe local consumers will follow them on the path of saving money and supporting area business through the new websites they've launched. They spend long hours posting every deal they can find on their individual savings websites so that busy people don't have to search the Internet.

That's what makes them different than the vast array of national sites offering savings and discounts around the country. Hull and Curtis want you to keep your money here.

Frugal blogging
Hull created Savvy Chic Savings last fall to help her and others save money and find the best local deals. Her goal is to post seven to 10 new offers every day, checking primarily pharmacies, grocery stores and online discounts in what she calls "frugal blogging."

An unusual activity for Hull, 30, a single woman who hadn't thought much about saving money on purchases. But when a cousin gave the Sparta woman a $10 razor she got for a dollar, and a handful of free personal care items, Hull changed her mind about couponing.

Hull really started paying attention, when in one month, she ended up with $761 in free brand name items at a local drugstore by following sales, using coupons and signing up for a loyalty card.

"I never saw any value in coupons until I realized how much you can get free," Hull says. "Obviously I saw the value in this and the value of the Internet. Now I do all the work to help my readers get the best deals."

With a fulltime job as an account manager for four small companies in the Grant area, Hull was taking courses at Davenport College until she decided to launch her web site last fall.

"I was coming up with marketing ideas in my sleep, and I hope to eventually get a degree in marketing when I go back to school this fall," she adds. "I've decided I'm really interested in social media marketing and eventually would like to make this my fulltime work."

Jumping in with both feet
Curtis launched her website in May to link locally owned businesses and consumers for unusual or little-known services or products. Curtis, 41, says she named her site Hop In Deals using a frog as her brand logo "because I like frogs." The 800 number is1-877-467-2030.

She makes cold calls to businesses in metro Grand Rapids to persuade them to offer deals on her site, such as 50 percent off at fresh flower shops, boutiques, photography studios, salons and spas. Now the referrals are starting to come in.

"This is my fulltime job and we're still tweaking the site," says Curtis, who lives with her husband, Chris, and daughter, Courtney, in Rockford. With years of work in sales, Curtis used that experience to launch her site.

"A friend had told me about a (national) site that offers sales and I wanted to bring that to Grand Rapids," Curtis adds. "I feel it's a great opportunity to introduce people to something new and different in our own community. It gives them the chance to try out things they may not know about."

Another site,SavingsAngel.com was established in Holland a few years ago, but charges a monthly membership fee to consumers.

Each woman updates her site daily and gives visitors the opportunity to sign up for daily e-mails to keep abreast of what's available at any given time. Both women use Facebook and Twitter as connections, and Hull has used YouTube videos and wants to add tutorial videos.

A new way to do business
If recent surveys are any indication, Hull and Curtis have picked the perfect time to push digital coupons and discounts in a tough economy.

In the last two years, electronic couponing outpaced newspaper-based coupons by 10 to 1, according to Coupons.com Inc., a in Mountain View, Calif.-based company that says its a leader in the use of digital coupons. In 2009, more than 45 million consumers used online coupons, up from 38 million in 2008, the company say, and the use of digital coupons increased 170 percent in 2009, with $858 million in printed savings.
 
Curtis says there is no upfront cost for a business to advertise and that she makes a small percentage on how many deals are sold. Her promotions include interesting stories about the business, the discount available and how long it lasts. Even the fine print is prominently displayed so there are no surprises.
 
"Women do most of the shopping, but men are buying the flowers," she adds. "I really want to help local business and keep our money here."

Hull uses a variety of resources and links on her site. She receives compensation through her promotional efforts. Both are making a small amount of money, but it primarily is pumped right back into maintaining the sites.

They know they're small potatoes compared to the giants with huge budgets promoting coupons and discounts around the country, but believe area consumers will pay attention and check out the bargains at local sites.

Online only a month, Curtis had 1,500 visits to her site the first week. Hull gets about 5,000 visits a month since she started her blog in October. Interest for both sites is steadily growing.

Both say the effort is much harder then they envisioned, but feel it's time well spent. Neither woman would share her investment costs, but the effort is starting to pay off. Hull and Curtis already are working on redesigning their sites.

Saving time for others
In the meantime the savings offerings go on. For herself, Hull says she consistently saves 90 percent on personal care items, while grocery items are more challenging. West Michigan groceries typically do not conduct the double or triple coupon redemption wars found around the country or even on the east side of the state.

"Our ads are different here, but I still typically save 50 to 60 percent on groceries," she says. "Frugal living is a chic thing to do and it's the responsible thing to do. I love getting feedback and knowing that other people are benefitting from this, too."

Free items she doesn't personally need or use are stockpiled and donated to local non-profit organizations. Her site includes a wealth of tips and advice on donating, as well as information for everything from understanding coupon lingo to other favorite savings links.

"The biggest excuse people use to not clip coupons or seek out deals is that they don't have time," Hull says. "I'm a one-stop for my readers and I just love helping people save money."

Curtis loves getting to know the "fun and exciting things in Grand Rapids" and sharing the stories on her site, along with the exclusive printable coupons arranged with the business.

Elissa Hillary, executive director of Local First, which works with 600 local independent businesses to educate the community about the importance of local spending, says the new web sites can only help make people more aware of supporting area business.

In a survey taken two years ago, one in five consumers in Kent County were aware of Local First and where they were spending their money, of which 73 percent out of every dollar spent at an independent business stays within the community.

"We certainly appreciate their efforts if they are supporting and keeping dollars circulating for local business," Hillary adds. "Some people use coupons and some don't, but any extra (exposure) is a good thing."


A veteran journalist formerly of The Grand Rapids Press, Mary Radigan is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids.

Photos:

Jolon Hull (3)

Savvy Chic Savings

Hop In Deals

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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