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Bitcoin makes a rare appearance among Sonoma County businesses

In June, Kenwood Hearing Centers in Santa Rosa recorded a breakthrough business experience that had nothing to do with audiology. It’s a rare event for any company in Sonoma County.

Kenwood took payment from a customer for two hearing aids in bitcoin, the most prominent form of cryptocurrency. Not cash, coins, credit card or paper check, but virtual money.

A man paid $1,799 in digital currency for hearing aids for his mother, said Adam Jasa, the hearing instrument specialist who handled the milestone transaction.

Jasa had heard cryptocurrency was gaining popularity nationwide with certain retailers and chain restaurants, among other businesses, accepting it. “I thought we should be the first” audiologists to take bitcoin, he said.

Kenwood is holding the bitcoin it collected from its initial crypto transaction in a digital wallet. Time will tell if the recent transaction was a flash in the pan or the beginning of a trend for the chain of six hearing centers in the North Bay, including five in Sonoma County.

“We wanted to be forward-looking and just try it,” Jasa said of accepting bitcoin.

He noted one advantage from a business perspective is that the transaction fees are generally lower than what Visa, Mastercard and American Express charge for credit card transactions.

No other customers have so far inquired about paying with bitcoin, but Jasa said Kenwood would take it at any of its hearing centers.

Kellogg Fairbank, CEO of Nash, a financial technology platform offering an app with banking services and crypto trading, said the main risks businesses face when accepting virtual currency payments are keeping their digital wallets safe and managing crypto exchange rates.

Merchants need to be confident they have stored their private digital keys securely, and ideally should regularly sell any cryptocurrency they receive to avoid market volatility, Fairbank said.

In addition, he said, there is some technical work required to integrate electronic wallets on a blockchain — essentially a digital ledger or computer database — into a retailer’s checkout system, as well as managing compliance and bookkeeping for tax purposes. And there are entry barriers for businesses before they can accept virtual payments: principally customers must have a crypto wallet and have bought digital currency to go in it.

“Realistically, the best option for small businesses right now is probably to use a third-party service to handle their crypto payments,” Fairbanks said.

Regarding enticing consumers to use digital currency, he said, it’s quite difficult for a business to educate customers about the electronic payment method. For many consumers accustomed to cash and credit cards, bitcoin and other forms of virtual money remain intimidating.

Customers have to be able to experience digital currency themselves to potentially adapt to it, he said.

We’ll keep an ear to the ground to learn about other local businesses jumping into the digital currency world. We know you can buy beers, cocktails and pizza with bitcoin at Starling Bar in Sonoma, and there are Safeway and Lucky supermarkets in that town with kiosks inside for customers to exchange cash for the digital currency.

Using a financial lure

In a big indicator that area employers continue struggling to fill jobs in the post-pandemic recovery, Oliver’s Market increased wages and lifted the company’s minimum hourly full-time pay as of July 1 to $16, its highest starting level, said Sara Cummings, spokeswoman for Sonoma County’s largest independent grocer with four stores. Now hourly wages at Oliver’s run from $16 to $27.

As of Thursday, the employee-owned local grocery chain had 48 full-time openings to fill, Cummings said. The chain, founded here in 1988, employs 1,018 people, and 75% of them are full-time workers.

Also, for the first time in its history, Oliver’s is paying full-time hires in July for positions most difficult to fill — bakery, deli and butcher jobs in the meat department — a $500 bonus. New employees hired this month in those roles will be paid the bonus after working three months.

Cummings said company officials haven’t decided if they’ll continue paying the bonus for select August hires.

Retailing duo opens another shop

The retailing team of Tracy Adams and her daughter, Jessie Foell, is getting in on the ground floor of the pandemic rebound by opening men’s sports and casual apparel store Let It Fly on Saturday on McClelland Drive on the Town Green in Windsor.

This is the second store on Windsor Town Green for the mother-daughter duo, who opened Trace & Jess boutique women’s clothier in November 2020.

This family’s business acumen isn’t limited to the two women. Adams’ husband, JC Adams, co-owns Publican and KIN restaurants in Windsor and KINSmoke in Healdsburg.

Send your tips and ideas as this column chronicles the local economic post-pandemic recovery to paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. Call or text 215-237-4448. Or you can message @BiznewsPaulB on Twitter.

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