An iPad In Every Store: Belly Wants Local Merchants And Their Customers To Ditch Those Paper Loyalty Cards

loyalty

Digital loyalty is a hot topic right now, mainly because store loyalty is a system that's ripe for some technology innovation (all those paper punch-and-stamp cards...so old-fashioned!) and because it can be easier to implement a digital loyalty scheme than launching a full-fledged novel digital payment system—especially for the smaller-sized business, more mom-and-pop than IT geek. It's exactly into this market that Belly is launching today to change everything with a simple iPad.

The company's press release notes it "will offer a unique value proposition for small and medium sized businesses by replacing the traditional ‘buy 10 get one free punch cards’ with unique rewards that fit the personality of the business and connect consumers on a much more personalized level." The company was branded as Bellyflop during its pre-startup phase, but today it's rebranding and coming out of private test. Perhaps more intriguingly, and boding well for its future, it's seed-funded to the tune of over a million dollars by Lightbank—the investment firm from the guys who founded Groupon.

CEO and cofounder Logan LaHive and cofounder Ryan Jeffery (who is also a Founder In Residence at Lightbank) spoke today with Fast Company to explain their plan: "We create full custom and unique digital loyalty programs for small and medium-sized businesses," LaHive notes, "We put an iPad in their store, and then we create a fully customized digital loyalty system for that store based on their personality, culture, business objectives—all of those things."

It's actually a universal loyalty system, running on users' iPhones as an app—or with a dedicated card per customer—that simply requires you to scan your iPhone or Android phone or card over the in-store iPad at any participating merchant, then the iPad does all the loyalty processing over a net connection. To start with, it's a Chicago-based enterprise, but Belly has plans to quickly expand.

Forget the old paper-based cards, which are easily lost and which stores find really hard to analyize—but which small enterprises generally only have time, effort, money, and technical expertise to offer. To make it even easier to integrate into such stores, Belly's crafted its system to be independant of existing store infrastructure—so it'll work no matter what type of store you are, what existing loyalty schemes you run, and how you currently process payments.

One of the main returns for the business is, evidently, analytics: "We work with the stores to create fully customized and interesting rewards, but also with our loyalty program all customers sign up with an email address," LaHive outlined, "and that helps us provide analytics to these small businesses that really they've never had access to. One of our goals was to really help these small business, and really level the playing field" with larger chain peers (like Starbucks!) that has the muscle to do all this tertiary business development. To that end Belly's services go far beyond mere digital loyalty, as Belly can also "work with them not only on communication tools, to push better email marketing and all these other things to engage their customers."

So far so groovy, in an appeals-to-the-small-merchant kind of way, perhaps a lot like that other disruptive mobile-payments tech firm Square. But Belly's team was careful to note they're not trying to turn your local store into the customer-data-farming beast that bigger chain stores sometimes seem to be. The loyalty rewards they've run so far with their pre-start merchant partners are all about keeping the store personal and friendly. "We have bakeries that are offering not just a free cupcake, but all-you-can eat cupcakes, or 'win a date with a cupcake girl,' and we have a fish gourmet business where you can kiss a lobster," LaHive notes, while Jeffery points out that if you don't like the proprieter "you can slap him in the face with a fish."

It's a system that is working so far: "We have over 45,000 check-ins and over 17,000 users as well and that's just in the last two months in the 275 stores that we're currently in pre-launch," according to Jeffery—both figures that're also going up very quckily. And, as LaHive adds, "most of the stores that we have, of the ones that are really getting engagement they get more check-ins in our business than all other check-ins combined." Which basically means suck it Foursquare—possibly because Belly's "check-in"-like loyalty rewards actually offer you a bonus.

Digital loyalty, when explained like this by Belly seems such an immediately obvious way for a small business to really engage with its customers for a low cost (or no cost, as Belly offers a free trial period) and we're all so used to loyatly schemes, as well as the fact that we're all carrying smarter phones now, that it seems poised to become very common. The future-gazing among us are also wondering if this isn't a gateway tech, perhaps, for getting smarter future mobile payments systems into small stores—after all, it could be just a tweak to the kind of app Belly is offering.

[Image: Flickr user fsse8info]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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