It seemed like a great idea. Heartland Payment Systems wanted to take its payment processing clout local, cutting out high credit card fees for Princeton merchants and passing the savings along to area charities. The project, launched last September, was called the OnePrinceton Card. Almost a year later, how is it working out?

The challenge for Heartland is to get shoppers to add one more card to their wallets. So far Heartland has had more than 800 people sign up, of whom just under 300 are active users. It’s a smaller number than the company might have hoped, but to Heartland it is enough to prove the viability of the scheme.

Around the same time OnePrinceton began doing business, another company was trying something similar: a Princeton merchant rewards program. Brothers Andrew and Matthew Tervooren launched RePunch, a phone app meant to serve as a universal rewards account for local businesses. The website at www.repunch.com is still active, but the Tervoorens did not return E-mails asking for comment.

Heartland Payment Systems set up the OnePrinceton card to bolster the financial health of local merchants by charging them only 5 cents per transaction rather than the 3 to 7 percent fees they pay for standard credit cards. (See U.S. 1, September 18, 2013.)

The money these businesses save goes back to the community, through donations of 1 percent of transactions to support local nonprofits and other specials that OnePrinceton promotes to its members. The dollars that merchants save can be plowed back into their business; McCaffrey’s supermarkets, which has accounted for about half of OnePrinceton purchases so far, saved enough to hire several extra workers this summer. OnePrinceton also gives visibility to merchants and profits in its print materials and via social media.

To be successful, of course, a card needs users, and as of the first week in June, OnePrinceton showed 813 members, with about 284 active users, and it processed 4,862 transactions totaling almost $227,950, reports Adrienne Rubin, recently hired as community relations manager for OnePrinceton. As a result, $2,345 has been donated to local nonprofits, and local businesses have saved $6,839. “This is a significant amount of money staying in the community over an eight-month period,” she says. “We have learned that this is a viable program, even with only a small number of people using it.”

In conversations with both current and prospective cardholders, OnePrince­ton learned that about half of the people who sign up do so because they care about a particular local nonprofit and about half because they care about supporting local businesses.

As former executive director of the Princeton Education Foundation, Rubin, who came on board in February, found another way to integrate OnePrinceton into the community, through a program that allows parents to use their card to reload their children’s lunch accounts at Princeton public schools.

In April OnePrinceton enabled more than one card per account, which turns out to be a great advantage for parents with kids in a small town like Princeton. They can set up cards for their children with transaction limits and alerts to the parent every time a card is used. And the kids (and also adults) can make their payments via cell phone apps, PassBook (iPhone) and PassWallet (Android).

Rubin has set up a separate account number for her 12-year-old son. “Whenever my son gets a grilled cheese sandwich, I get an alert,” she says, noting that she has also set a transaction limit for him. “My son’s limit is $25, enough to get a pizza and sodas for him and his friends.”

“Parents really like that they are able to give their kids independent finances, in a safe manner, with no fees,” says Rubin, pointing out that the alternatives are prepaid debit cards that often charge fees for setup, usage, and reloading. OnePrinceton cards are free to consumers.

Whereas OnePrinceton tried a variety of promotions in the fall, the new strategy is just to share the program’s strengths. “So we are simply trying to communicate the program, not think of more bells and whistles,” she says. “We want to effectively communicate why it is a valuable program for merchants, nonprofits, and consumers.”

The OnePrinceton program, which started out as a partnership with the Princeton Merchants Association but has since expanded beyond it to additional businesses, is similar to other business support programs for nonprofits, but more comprehensive. “This is the only program I know that brings together the whole merchant community to support the local nonprofit community, and the consumer has a choice of what the nonprofit donation goes to,” says Rubin.

Suggesting why Heartland is willing to experiment with a program that does not directly contribute to the bottom line, Rubin offers two reasons: “The first thing is that it is in our best interests for our customers to stay in business, and that is not to be minimized. But this is also a way to give back to the local community.”

Rubin has found that people love the idea of OnePrinceton, but some get frustrated by the steps involved in starting an account, which requires two verifications along the way, the first of a user’s E-mail, and the second of bank account information. “The fact that they have stuff that they have to do at home makes it harder to get people to sign up,” says Rubin, “but we have to make sure that you are going to spend some money that exists.”

A native of Lexington, Massachusetts, Rubin matriculated at Princeton University, where she studied music theory and composition. Her mother taught high school math for 32 years, then retired and moved to West Windsor to be close to her daughter’s family and her only granchild.

After six-plus years as an actuary for William M. Mercer, in the Boston area, Rubin was lured back to Princeton as associate director for class affairs in the alumni relations office, where she worked with class volunteers and community service programs for nearly 14 years. In 2008 she became executive director of Volunteer Connect, and three years later became the first executive director of the Princeton Education Foundation.

Rubin, who trained as an opera singer, decided instead to become a synagogue cantor. “I realized I didn’t like the way people treated each other in the opera world,” she says, “and I felt cantorial service was a more meaningful expression of my music.” For 16 years she has served as a cantor at Temple Micah, an unaffiliated congregation of 120 families that meets in the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.

Rubin is excited about her job with OnePrinceton. “You’re part of something that has the potential to change the way we think about how we spend our money at our local businesses and how support them and our local nonprofits,” she says.

She is also responding to requests Heartland gets from communities across the country. “Ideally we would like to have this in small communities across the country to support local businesses and nonprofits and encourage people to help their communities stay vibrant,” she says.

To people who may be worried about losing points and cash-back offers available on their credit cards, Rubin says simply, “I want to keep local businesses in business.” Noting that five or six local restaurants that she likes have closed, she says, “If I can help make the difference in my own little way for a local business, I will.”

Heartland Payment Systems, 90 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542; 888-798-3131; fax, 609-683-3815. Robert Carr, CEO. www.heartlandpaymentsystems.com.

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