customer loyalty? there's an app for that [Virginian - Pilot]
(Virginian - Pilot Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Sonia Lopez started working for All American Yogurt early this year, she asked whether the shop had a system to reward repeat visitors.
The 18-year-old used to visit another frozen-yogurt store that offered a punch card, giving her a free treat for every nine purchased. All American Yogurt didn't have a punch card, but its owner recently signed up for a different customer-loyalty program, called Belly.
Belly provides an iPad for the front counter where customers can "check in" by scanning a plastic card or a smartphone application, racking up five points for each visit. The store offers rewards for different point levels - from free goodies to distinctive deals such as a private lunch with a restaurant owner.
Lopez installed the system a week ago at All American Yogurt's location on Independence Boulevard - one of two in Virginia Beach. She has noticed some customers coming in more frequently, she said.
"I think this is cooler" than a punch card, Lopez said, "just because it incorporates the technology with the iPad."
Belly expanded to Hampton Roads just before Christmas, courtesy of Scott Michael Ringo, a self-described "entrepreneur of ideas" and consultant to nonprofits and small businesses. His clients often asked how they could do a loyalty program with their limited size and resources.
Ringo, who lives in Virginia Beach, started researching options and found Belly. Based in Chicago, the company started in August 2011 and now has almost 1 million users and more than 4,000 businesses - including about 50 in Hampton Roads - in 40 states.
Belly focuses on independent operators to help build better relationships with their customers, said Ryan Jeffery, Belly's vice president of business development.
"Small business is at the top of our mind," Jeffery said. "We try to cater to them so that they can compete with the bigger guys in the marketplace."
With punch cards, shop owners usually cannot track customers' patterns and directly appeal to them. "They didn't have a very effective way to retain the customers who walked through the door," Jeffery said.
Each time a consumer hits the "Tap to Belly" link and scans the distinct QR code connected to his or her card or smartphone app, Belly collects information. It can tell business owners when customers tend to shop and how often and which other stores they visit.
"There's so many things that a small-business owner needs to be doing," Jeffery said. "They're so busy."
For a similar program, merchants would need to install software and find someone to manage it. They would have to spend time targeting emails to customers for special promotions. And they would incur all those costs.
"To set up your own loyalty program is expensive, and that's only good for your store," said Ringo, who is now the local Belly representative.
Early Belly adopters pay $50 a month. As of Friday, the monthly price rose to $79, $99 or $149, depending on enhanced services the merchant chooses. The basic rate includes the tablet with the Belly interface; 300 Belly cards for customers who prefer them to the phone app; and an account manager to handle customer service and back-end operations.
A couple of years ago, Marianne Winesett started to research a loyalty program for Simply Selma's, the Virginia Beach gift shop she owns with two partners. "It was one of those things that kept getting pushed to the back burner because of the time and the expense," she said.
Late last year, Ringo solicited the merchants at La Promenade Shoppes and sold Winesett on Belly. The program encourages small retailers to share customers and promote one another, she said.
"It makes us stronger as a community if businesses are binding themselves together," Winesett said. "It gives us one local voice."
Last week, a shopper signed up for Belly at Ocean Palm, a clothing store next to Simply Selma's, and saw the list of participating businesses on her phone app, Winesett said. She came over to pick up a few gifts, then stepped a few doors down to Bean There Coffeehouse and bought a beverage.
"As business owners, we realize who we're competing with is not necessarily another small business," Winesett said. "We're competing with online stores and other big-box stores. We don't have the budget of Dillard's."
With Belly, small operators can offer the kind of rewards programs that consumers find at national chains, such as discount- shoe retailer DSW or Sephora, the cosmetics vendor. Those stores tally up customers' points based on their spending and convert them to a specific discount once they reach a minimum number of points.
Belly records customer visits rather than dollars spent, recognizing that a diner who comes to a restaurant every week and runs a $30 tab has as much value in the long term as a $500 catering order from someone who will never return, Ringo said.
Merchants can be creative with their rewards. Simply Selma's staff will serenade a customer who reaches 50 points and treat her to a gift-wrapping tutorial at 75 points. Customers of Quintin's Tea in Virginia Beach can create their own beverage blend and name the flavor with 40 points or have a private tasting for eight with 150 points.
Whitney Stevens, who co-owns the Beach fashion boutique Esme, praised Belly's concept but said she has greater expectations for her own loyalty program. In January, Esme customers received a punch card. They get a stamp for every $25 spent. With 10 stamps, the card holder can put $25 toward another purchase anytime in 2013.
Tech-savvy shoppers might like the app, but Stevens said half her customers would balk at Belly. They're old-school, she said.
"They don't even want me to email them."
For Stevens, the fee also was a key blow against Belly. "Honestly, for a small business, it's a little expensive."
Stevens said she would like to launch Internet sales for Esme this year and prefers to put her extra money toward that effort.
Hampton Roads is among more than two dozen regions, in addition to 12 major markets such as New York and Washington, that have a sizable number of Belly businesses, Jeffery said. Ringo has concentrated on signing up retail clusters in Virginia Beach, but he has started bringing Belly to Chesapeake and Norfolk.
The growing number of Belly merchants means more value for Belly users, said Lopez, who estimated that about 90 percent of her All American Yogurt customers have embraced the program, though most had never heard of it.
"It would be awesome for more (businesses) to do it because it's one card for everywhere," she said.
Winesett said she has to explain the program to many Simply Selma's shoppers. Some, though, whip out their phones and download it with excitement.
"Our customers do come in and go, 'Oh my gosh, in two more visits, I get a free pack of napkins!' " Winesett said.
"The point is, it is fun. It's hip."
Carolyn Shapiro, 757-446-2270, email@example.com
how it works
A consumer visits a participating business. The consumer either downloads the Belly app or takes a Belly card at the business. Belly supplies the store an iPad for visitors to use. The consumer presses the "Tap to Belly" link to scan his or her distinct QR code to earn points. Busnesses determine their own rewards for points earned.
serenaded by staff
name a new drink
it goes with you
A consumer visits a participating business. Belly supplies an iPad at the store for visitors to use. The consumer presses the "Tap to Belly" link to scan his or her distinct QR code to earn points. Buisnesses determine their own rewards for different points earned.
free daisy bouquet
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