Belly takes ‘Bites’ freebies program out of beta; beefs up loyalty platform

Mobile loyalty card provider Belly may be getting in bed with the big retail chains, but it hasn’t forgotten the local businesses that made it popular.  Belly has released a new version of its merchant application with a bunch of features intended to give small merchants digital analytics and promotional tools that normally only larger retail outfits would have access to.

First Belly is bringing its free samples program, Belly Bites, out of beta, offering it up to its nationwide merchant base. Bites is designed to give an active component to a normally passive loyalty program, by letting businesses offer free samples or services to all Belly users. Customers can see what nearby Bites are available from their Belly smartphone apps or online, which in turn encourages them to visit new stores.

Belly Logan LaHiveAccording to CEO and founder Logan LaHive, Bites has been a runaway success in its trials in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Merchants have given out nearly 500,000 free samples through Bites, and those samples are prompting repeat visits. In the case of high-turnover quick-service businesses coffee shops, those return rates are as high as 70 percent, he said.

Belly’s new command center app – basically the interface you see on Belly check-in tablets at more than 6000 stores – is becoming kind of a digital in-store sales assistant. Business owners can now view all of their customer history, demographic and sales figures, track and adjust individual loyalty points and launch promotions directly from their terminals. This gives a proprietor real-time insight into who is in their stores, who their most loyal customer are and who has the potential to become a loyal customer, LaHive said.

Finally, Belly is offering more social media tools. It’s using its analytics to track loyal customers and prompt them to write Yelp reviews. LaHive said Belly is being very careful about who it targets – it doesn’t want to alienate a business’s customers by constantly spamming their inboxes. But once a customer has visited a certain number of times or has redeemed a reward from the loyalty program, they’ll get an email with the Yelp review request. In addition, Belly is integrating closer with Facebook(s fb), letting customers “like” a business with one tap on an in-store terminal.

Backed by Lightbank and Andreessen Horowitz, Belly started out in Chicago as a digital loyalty platform for small businesses, letting businesses tailor unique rewards programs while giving customers a universal loyalty card in their smartphones they could use at multiple local stores. But it’s quick growth – it has processing more than 1.5 million check-ins a month – attracted the interest of the big retail chains, and Belly terminals are making their way on trail basis into 7-Elevens and McDonalds locations throughout Chicago.

LaHive said much of the interest from the bigger chains is driven by their customers. They wanted to use Belly as a universal loyalty card rather than subscribe to a bunch of separate national rewards program. While Belly certainly welcomes the enterprises’ business, LaHive said, the company’s focus is still on small local merchants, and its long-term plan is to provide those businesses with digital retailing and marketing services beyond the baseline loyalty program.