In August 2011, owners of AlleyCat Comics, a small comic bookstore in Chicago, launched their first digital loyalty program. Featured in this program was a once in a lifetime opportunity to punch the owner in the stomach; odd, but effective. This was the launching pad for Belly Inc.: a three year old startup, formerly known as Bellyflop, with a universal loyalty program.
Logan LaHive founded Belly and was pretty much its only employee until the company received over $1M in funding from Lightbank. Since then, Belly has raised over $15M in funding from investors, received a Moxie award in 2011 for Best UX (user experience), and was awarded two Moxie awards in 2013 for Startup of the Year and Best B2B (business to business) Startup.
What makes Belly unique is its customizable rewards program and its “all you need is in one box” setup. With Belly you get:
- An iPad with the Belly software application, the iPad stand and combination lock
- Data reports
- Social media integrations
- Email marketing
- A mobile page on the Belly app
It’s true, Belly sends you everything in one box, but they don’t offer much outside of it. They offer some great features with the Belly application, but know what you’re getting into before you sign a contract. Read their terms and conditions, and don’t ignore the fine print. Recently, Belly has changed their subscription plan and pricing. What was once a tiered structure with various options has been streamlined into one universal product designed to take over the world. No, really, Belly wants to be in every store, everywhere. Something to consider as you read on.
Full pricing details for the Belly program can be found on their website. Belly is a subscription based service and offers a 30 day risk free trial.
Monthly subscription costs range from $99 – $199, and contracts run for 12 months. The cost of the iPad, iPad stand, application software, and unlimited rewards cards are included in the subscription costs for the highest plan, but an additional $150 installation fee is charged for lower plans.
With the program you also get:
- Data reports on customer visits – Every time one of your customers scans their rewards card or mobile phone on your Belly device, the visit is logged. This information can be accessed through your Merchant dashboard on the iPad.
- Two targeted email blasts per month – Belly allows you to send customized emails to your customers twice a month.
- Social Media integrations – Belly currently supports Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp. Customers checking in to Belly will have the option to share their activity on Twitter or Facebook, write a review on Yelp, or “like” your Facebook page.
- A Belly Representative to help you on the way – Belly designates a specific person, called a Merchant Success Manager, to assist you with setup, email campaigns, and program data. They can be contacted directly through the Merchant Dashboard.
- Mobile Page on Belly mobile app – Belly’s app will list your business info and rewards on its mobile app so potential customers can find you.
If you cancel the service at any time within the 30 day trial period, then Belly will issue you a refund. Cancellations after the trial period are subject to a 6 month cancellation fee. (No, that’s not a typo). Contracts do not end automatically after twelve months; instead, they continue on a month to month basis until the merchant cancels the service or the contract is renewed.
It’s important to note that Belly will continue to charge you unless they are given 60 days advance notice of service cancellation. So, if your contract ends December 20, 2014, you have to cancel 60 days prior to that date in order to avoid being charged for January and February. When cancelling Belly service, you are responsible for returning the Belly Kit materials. Belly provides the pre-labeled shipping box, but you have to pay the shipping costs, and you may have to complete an exit survey. Belly doesn’t consider the service cancelled until all of these steps are followed.
Belly will continue to charge the merchant on a month to month basis if this procedure isn’t followed. This has been a bone of contention for many business owners, especially since the cancellation process isn’t listed on the contract; instead, it’s listed in section 5 of the terms of service on the Belly website.
Web based or Locally – Installed:
A little of both. Belly is managed completely through the iPad Belly app issued to the vendor. It’s designed to be used with Wi-Fi, but Belly recently upgraded the app to allow local caching of offline checkins.
Hardware and Software Requirements:
Belly provides the iPad, iPad stand, and software application. You’ll need access to Wi-Fi, so if you don’t already have wireless service, you’ll need to set it up.
Specific Size of Business and Type (Or Company Size):
Belly is ideal for smaller businesses who want a hassle-free loyalty program. Belly focuses on businesses with a store front, such as bakeries, cafes, grocers, bars, spas, fitness clubs and boutiques.
Ease of Use:
- Setup. The initial setup is quick. If you can work an iPad, you can use Belly with no problem. The software has a command center for merchants to access and edit features such as the email blasts and rewards. For Merchants, setup is just a few easy steps: (You can also view a demo here). Open the box with all your Belly equipment and pull out the iPad. Power it up, select your WiFi connection, click on the Belly app and swipe your Belly Card. Use the email account used on your contract to register and you’re ready to go. Secure the iPad with the combination lock, plug it into a power source and place it near the point of sale.
- Customer Use. For customers, the process is simple. Customers scan their rewards card or cell phone to receive points. If using a rewards card, the customer must enter their email address to register the card. Once that’s done, the customer only needs to scan the card from that point on. For customers using the mobile app, their information is gathered during the application’s installation, so no additional action is required after scanning. The iPad uses big buttons, shortcuts, and large fonts, and prompts are short and sweet, so it’s easy on the eyes.
- Additional Support. Belly offers up to one hour of additional technical support if needed at initial setup. Any support in excess of one hour is billed to the merchant.
Customer Service and Technical Support:
Belly provides merchants with a rep to assist with setting up social media platforms, email blasts, and navigating through program data and reports.
- Phone. To learn more about Belly use 1.866.576.8024. For current clients in need of support or customer service, use 1.866.620.3534.
- Web. The Belly website lists FAQs in the support section at www.bellycard.com/support. The website doesn’t have any tutorials on how to use the Merchant Dashboard or command center; most post-setup questions in the FAQs are referred to the “Success Manager” you were assigned. You can send them a message via the contact form on their support page.
- Hours of Operation. Customer service is not available around the clock. Their hours aren’t even listed on the site. I called the Belly Merchant line on a Saturday afternoon and got a voicemail recording. In their defense, they did call back on Monday. It’s the same with the Belly Member Support Line. If they don’t pick up in a few rings, you get a voicemail recording.
Negative Reviews and Complaints:
Payment issues. Belly has an A+ rating with the BBB (Better Business Bureau), with 10 complaints in the last three years, most of which are payment related. For a list of all the complaints, check out the BBB website. Here’s a sample one of the more recent complaints:
“We signed a one year contract in June 2012 that ended in June 2013. It was not renewed and they did not pick up their product. In November, 2013 when billings continued to Amex we complained, attempted to reach them to get them to pick up their product. Stop put on their merchant number. They changed their name and kept billing with new merchant number. We complained to Amex. Changed name and merchant number again. They would not pick up their product and continued billing saying we had their product.”
Costs exceed value. In addition to their cancellation process, some users question the value of the program itself.
“So here’s my beef. I am a business owner. Belly charges a monthly fee and in return you get emails and likes on Facebook. The deceiving part is when the customer signs up their email addresses goes straight to Belly not to the participating business. The business has to pay attention to every single person that signs because there is a second step with a tiny strip that pops up asking if you want to be a part of the business email list. Essentially the businesses are collecting Belly’s emails for them for free and Belly pays nothing for those emails. Does not make sense nor does does it benefit the business. The business also gives away free stuff and pays Belly monthly for the privilege. Not a great plan. We can do that via Twitter and Facebook already.”
Some employees complain about Belly as well. Belly’s continuity in the market, as well as their product development, have some employees worried. One employee lists the following cons via the Glassdoor website:
- The product offers no real ROI, so it’s a hard sell for small businesses which is the majority of your day to day sales plan.
- Non- evolving product.
- A start up company that wants to grow fast at whatever cost.
- High sales pressure.
- Little to no support from the HQ Chicago office.
- The product doesn’t work well with most businesses.
- Constant emails annoy customers as well as business owners.
- The idea behind Belly seems cool and innovative, but won’t be relevant in 5 years.
- “Customer Loyalty” is a fad. People go where they want to go regardless of a rewards program.
- High turnover.
Not enough businesses use Belly. The company has saturated the Chicago market, which is great if you live in Chicago. The most frequent complaint I’ve seen from consumers is that there aren’t enough businesses who use Belly, with the occasional complaint about bothersome emails. An android user writes:
“Great Idea. Will add stars if more businesses I frequent elect to participate. So far I only use it at one place. What I don’t like is the notification 30 minutes after I’ve used Belly at a location that I’ve been there and earned points. I know, I had to get out my phone, launch the app and hold it up to an iPad. It just happened, I don’t need the reminder.”
Belly claims to be the largest loyalty program out there, but the majority of Belly locations are in Chicago; the rest are sprinkled throughout the U.S. People love the app and what it does on a universal level but want to see more of it. LaHive stated in an interview with Colleen Taylor of TechCrunch last year that Belly is concentrated on market saturation at this point. While merchants play an important role in Belly’s growth, their primary goal seems to be connecting consumers with Belly, not connecting consumers with merchants.
Positive Reviews and Testimonials:
Easy to Use. The Belly app overall has a four out of five star rating from over 4000 mobile users. People love free stuff, and Belly is completely free to use, can be used at any participating Belly location, and has great mobile features. One user states:
“What’s not to love about this app? Very easy to set up and use. I found out about it because my employer started using it for his store in place of buy 10 get 1 free punch cards. Quite a few businesses in my area have it already.”
Popular with customers. From a customer standpoint Belly is fun, it’s new, and it’s modern. I patronized a few businesses who use the Belly software to get their take. I spoke with the manager of a pizza parlor in the Bronx. They’ve had Belly for nearly a year and plan to renew. They like the program, and so do their customers.
A Dairy Queen in Virginia, right off the highway, uses Belly as well. They’ve only had the program a few months, but they’re optimistic. The “newness” alone creates a lot of interest among their customers.
Great features. Belly lists merchant testimonial videos on their site. One of the more informative ones is St. Elmo’s Story, which gives a better description of the features Belly provides, particularly the data reports generated in the Merchant Dashboard.
Belly offers a customizable loyalty program, data collection, a mobile page on the Belly app, social media integration, and email marketing with their subscription. All of their features can be accessed on the Belly for business page.
- Loyalty Program – Belly allows merchants to fully customize rewards, whether they’re the traditional “buy one get one free,” or a more unique “30 second grocery grab.” The point is, you get to decide what rewards would work best for the customers you have. Points are rewarded per visit, as opposed to per dollar. The idea is to encourage more frequent visits from customers. The more a customer visits, the more opportunities you have to engage them. Because Belly’s loyalty program is electronic, all the consumer data is logged and tucked away in a database. Merchants can access this information through their Dashboard. Information includes daily, weekly, and monthly visits, and groupings by gender, age, and new versus returning customers. This is what truly separates Belly’s program from a paper punch card.
- Email Marketing – Belly email campaigns can now track email performance from the time the campaign is sent to a customer’s in-store visit, offering a better way to analyze campaign effectivness. Basic plans offer one campaign per month, mid-level plans offer two, and the highest subscription offers unlimited campaigns. Belly separates members based on how frequently they visit and puts them into email groups. You can select these groups and customize an email specifically for them. In addition to email blasts, Belly sends emails to customers after they’ve visited your location. This email contains the name of the business, details on the rewards offered, and the number of points the customer has. (After using the mobile app to check in, I received one of these emails directly from Belly. None of the links in the email took me back to the location or its information; the email only had links to the Belly website and social media pages.)
- Automated Marketing – Belly recently launched a program called Auto-engage which is available to merchants with the largest subscription plan. This plan offers unlimited email campaigns as well as specialized marketing tools that are automatically sent to customers based on their activity. These automations include promotions for First Time customers, At Risk customers, and Lapsed customers.
- Social Media – Belly gives customers access to your company’s social media pages in two ways: at the point of sale and via the mobile application. When customers check in at your location or redeem points, they should receive prompts to share their activity on Facebook or Twitter, or receive a link to write a review on Yelp. I don’t remember seeing any prompts when I checked in. There may be a setting you have to activate on your Merchant Dashboard. Belly posts on their site that mobile pages will have large, visible buttons to “Like” a business on Facebook, or visit the Yelp page to leave a review, but none of those buttons appear on my android phone. The basic web and social media info is at the very bottom and has a tiny icon.
- Mobile Exposure – Each business using Belly receives a mobile page on Belly’s mobile app. The page has the business name, location, rewards, phone number, website, and social media info. Belly users will be able to search for your business directly, or see your business if it’s nearby. Belly plots businesses on a collapsible map as well as lists them by distance.
- Belly Bites – Included in the Belly Rewards program is something called Belly Bites. Basically, customers browse the Belly website or mobile app for deals, reserve the deals they want, and go to your location to redeem them. I’d love to tell you more about Belly Bites and how they work, but the Belly link is broken and, apparently, only being used in their hometown of Chicago. They claim it will be available in more cities soon, but even the deals listed in Chicago are few and far between. My guess is the feature isn’t all that popular.
Integrations and Add-Ons:
Belly does not integrate with POS systems or your company’s website. The only suggestion a Belly rep offered to me was a link to the Belly website somewhere on your business site. Not very helpful.
Belly uses SSL technology and SSL-encryption for its software and the iPad is secured with a cable attached to a combination lock. As far as protecting your merchant data, the Merchant Dashboard and Command center can only be accessed with your Belly card or email address. So, security depends on how much access other people have to those things.
The Loyalty Test:
In general, a loyalty program should do three things: increase repeat business, generate new business, and give you a competitive edge. Does Belly:
- Increase repeat business? Yes. Belly is designed to reward customers for how often they visit a business, as opposed to how much money they spend. A few things to consider: rewards need to give customers a large enough incentive to return. If I have to come to your business twenty times to get 5 cents off my meal, odds are I’m not going to bite.
- Generate new business? Yes. In a limited way. Belly’s mobile app makes your store visible to Belly’s users, giving you increased exposure. The social media interaction between current customers and their social circles has potential, but Belly prompts are easily ignored, so interaction between employees and customers is critical.
- Give you a competitive edge? Yes. For now. Having my points tracked with an app is way better than having to keep up with a punch card. But if Belly’s goals of world domination are realized, your cool iPad and rewards program will look just like your competitor’s.
Belly offers a well designed rewards program with easy to use features and has a very popular mobile app with great reviews. Belly offers a modern alternative to punch cards, as well as useful consumer data. Overall, Belly is a solid small business loyalty program with great potential, but it takes more than good software to make a loyalty program successful. Well thought out rewards and good customer relations are essential.