New programs help small business build customer base

NOTE: This column first appeared in the March 5 Daily Herald Business Ledger.

As daily deal coupons, digital wallets and customer loyalty programs become more prevalent among national retailers, developers are stepping up to help small, mom-and-pop businesses compete for customers in the digital world.
There has been a plethora of new products introduced over the past year, designed to give Main Street businesses the competitive edge against the Starbucks and Paneras in enticing new customers and rewarding regular ones.
One example is Naperville-based Uberloop, which is designed to help small businesses connect with customers through an online community-based network. The site launched in February with 18 local businesses participating, primarily in the western suburbs, and an additional 20 to be added within the next month, according to Uberloop President Joshua Dean.
Think of it, in a sense, as Facebook meets Groupon.
Like Facebook, businesses create an Uberloop presence and invite customers through “Loopvites” to join their site, according to Dean. Once a customer accepts an invitation, the business can send alerts to the customer of specials and create coupons for the customer to use at the store. As businesses and customers become part of the Uberloop community, they have the ability to learn about and share with one another within a geographic area, Dean said.
“What’s powerful about this is that we’re trying to create new connections and engagements between a business and their current and potential customers within a local community,” Dean said.
Uberloop businesses can broadcast specials, news or other information to customers through “Loopcasts,” which Dean said are broadcast to the Uberloop customers, as well as all subscribers within a 30-mile radius of the business.
In addition, businesses can create “Uberperks,” or online coupons, to customers. Dean said the site has a user-friendly coupon generator that provides templates for the business to create and send its own online coupon.
All of this, he said, is linked to social media as well, so customers and business can resend their Loopcasts or Uberperks to Facebook, Twitter, or other sites, which gives the local business greater reach and potential for new customers.
In addition to the online tools, Dean said Uberloop also has a brick-and-mortar platform through “Ubercards” that are displayed at participating businesses. The racks — called “Uberboards” — contain cards that offer deals from other participating Uberloop business. As a customer visits an Uberloop business, they can see the Ubercards from other businesses and, if there is something the customer finds interesting, can take the card with him.
“We’ve taken the giftcard concept that you see at a Jewel or Meijer,” Dean explained. “But they don’t need to be purchased. What they are is a printed Uberperk.”
The cards are taken by the customer and activated online in order to receive the offer. “The activation process connects the customer with the business and brings them into the Uberloop community,” he said.
Although the site is currently focused on the suburbs, Dean foresees the platform to grow nationally with the goal of having 10,000 businesses and 6 million registered users within a year. He noted that, since the Uberloop communities are geo-based and focus locally, he has had a lot of interest from local business organizations and chambers of commerce, as well other professional and trade organizations.
“The purpose behind Uberloop is building relationships,” he said. “You build relationships to a point where, if a competitor makes a more enticing offer, your customers may not take it up because they’ve built that relationship with you.”
For more information, go to www.uberloop.com.
Meanwhile, Paycloud made its debut recently in the Chicago area as a smart wallet alternative for small businesses. The creation of Cleveland-based SparkBase, Paycloud is a smartphone app that uses credit card transaction technology to extend a small business’s customer loyalty program.
The key to Paycloud is that it uses hardware already in the store, so start up costs are less than $100 and can be set up within 48 hours, according to SparkBase CEO Doug Hardman.
“You tap on the phone and hold it to a sensor connected to the credit card terminal,” Hardman said. “It encrypts the information and the device puts it in like a credit card swipe. It’s a very secure way to transmit data into a credit card reader.”
Paycloud allows customers to join and participate in customer loyalty programs, as well as find other participating businesses within proximity of the customer. Hardman said Paycloud is seen as an alternative to plastic card-based programs.
“Merchants really don’t like passing out plastic cards as the do getting them,” he said. “They don’t like to type all that information into the system at the end of the day.
“If we can make the processes seamless and instantaneous, then we’ve got a winner — and that’s what we got,” he said.
Paycloud was launched last fall in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, which Hardman said was selected because of the large number of small businesses that were located within walking distance from one another. He said the program was well-received among the 160 merchants using it during the last quarter of 2011, and Paycloud will be rolled out in other parts of the country throughout this year, he added.
Paycloud is one of many tools SparkBase offers small business to help them build customer loyalty and branding programs. For more information, go to sparkbase.com/products/paycloud/simple/.

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