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Business

How the Belly Card Makes a Meal Out of Other Loyalty Programs

Belly's Chicago office

Belly’s Chicago office

From earning a date with a grocery store’s chief executive to winning a chance to punch a comic book owner in the tummy, the rewards consumers can reap with a Belly loyalty card program are quirky to say the least.

One of the best prizes in the Belly network? An ice cream date with Jerry of Ben and Jerry’s. Since you’d have to earn those 1,000 points by eating ice cream, that’s a lot of brain freeze.

An evolution of the traditional loyalty punch card, consumers use Belly cards to collect customized rewards at businesses where Belly iPads are installed, although points aren’t transferable between, say, a local coffee shop and the neighborhood wine bar.

The Belly card is sophisticated enough to track spending habits and other consumer data, but one of its selling points is that it is luddite-proof.

“Any customer can use it. [From] the savviest tech person who only uses apps to someone who doesn’t even have a smart phone,” says Jennifer Beightol, Director of Words and Reputations (in other words, PR) at Belly. For “dumb phone” users, there’s a keychain card for swiping at community businesses.

“[Our founder] always puts in people’s head that scene from Seinfeld when George Costanza’s wallet explodes from having too many cards and receipts in his wallet,” explains Beightol. “His idea is how can we slim down the wallet and create one punch card to replace them all?”

Currently, Belly boasts 4 million members and its partnership with 7- Eleven, announced this summer, will likely give a boost to the program’s popularity. Belly expects to be in 10,000 U.S. and Canadian businesses by year-end.

Founded in 2011, the startup was originally conceived as “Belly Flop,” offering in-store games that let users gamble to win or lose loyalty points that they had collected.

The flop idea didn’t stick, but earning points specific to a business or its personality did, according to Beightol. “It’s not just that your tenth burrito is free; you could also get to come into the restaurant and say that you are the conquistador [because you eat so many burritos there]. Businesses are able to use Belly as an extension of their personality,” she says.

Merchants pay $129 monthly for Belly, although the amount can fluctuate depending on the number of iPads and additional features offered. Businesses can tap a variety of features to engage with customers, from targeting lapsed patrons via email to Belly Bites, a new initiative aimed at attracting new clients.

Belly aims to help small businesses lure new customers, but the jury on that is still out. “Customers who are going to be our regulars anyway are excited about Belly. It is exciting to earn free things,” says the manager at Pizza Vinoteca in New York City’s Union Square. “I don’t really think we are getting a lot of people coming in from the Belly website.”

Still, he admits that his own shopping habits are swayed by the card’s perks: “I will go to the bagel store that has a little worse bagels with the shorter line because I would rather get a free bagel every five bagels. It swings me.”

Investors are also taking note of the Chicago-based startup. To date, Belly has raised  $28 million. Backers include big names like Andreessen Horowitz, Enterprise Associates, and Chicago’s Lightbank, led by Groupon CEO Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell.

Although Belly collects consumer data, execs promise that they anonymize it for merchants and never sell it. Another priority is not to cannibalize business that a small store might have built up.

“The last thing we want is a customer to stop going to their corner pizza shop because a new one opened up down the street,” says Beightol, who explains that users are only offered Belly Bite promotions for establishments other than those that they regularly frequent. For example, customers who use Belly at a hair salon would not be offered a promotion for a new salon in the same neighborhood.

“At the end of the day it is all about loyal customers and keeping things local,” explains Beightol.

As Belly expands across the U.S. and Canada, it will be interesting to see if they are able to make good on their “local loyalty” mantra. Only time will tell if they can keep their conquistador status in the loyalty card business.

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