By Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter Published Sep 16, 2012 at 9:01 AM

Become a merchandiser for the day at Re-Threads. Get posted on the Facebook page of Shiraz Persian Grill as a Preferred Customer. Create and name your own panini at Nessum Dorma. Throw a free keg party at O'Lydia's.

These aren't your granddaddy's rewards points. This is personalized compensation for your patronage – 21st century style. For merchants who utilize the Belly app, it's all about creating and maintaining a connection with loyal customers ... using an iPad.

Belly is a digital customer loyalty program for small and medium-sized businesses that was founded last year in Chicago. One of the fastest-growing tech start-ups in the Midwest, it was introduced to Milwaukee businesses six months ago and is now used by over 100 area merchants.

"What we do is provide an iPad that sits at the point of purchase right next to the counter and customers can come in and either use a smartphone app that they can download or a physical card that we provide, and based on accumulated business they get more points that can be redeemed for various unique and personalized rewards," explained Ryan Jeffrey, vice president of business development at Belly. 

The start-up has the backing of several high-profile iGeneration whiz kids. Logan LaHive, CEO and founder, was formerly the director of new business at Redbox. Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, co-founders of Groupon, hired LaHive to be an entrepreneur in residence at Lightbank, a Chicago venture firm that invests in start-ups. They are now investors in Belly.

But what makes this program really different?

"That one app, that one card, you can use at all participating businesses," said Jeffrey.

Customers rack up points at individual businesses, with a running tab at all their favorite places. There's no more digging around in your wallet for that crumpled punch card. Just whip out your phone and scan it on the iPad. No smartphone, no sweat – you can go old school with a card, but now you have one instead of 20.

"The rewards are different at every place we install," said Jeffrey. "The idea is to really engage and connect with their customers on a deeper basis and a deeper level."

From a merchant's standpoint, this is the wave of the future.

When Classy Girl Cupcakes in Cathedral Square decided to implement a customer rewards program, owner Erica Elia was looking for ease of use, convenience and economy. 

She explored traditional options but was put off by the amount of added work it would require of the staff. When she heard about Belly, she took notice. 

"I really like that it’s super easy for the merchant to use," she said. "It was only $10 more a month than the punch card, and we would have had to manage the program and have it go through our credit card machine, swipe it and wait for the machine. With this we don’t have to do anything." 

The Three Lions Pub in Shorewood has been a Belly merchant since the app's Milwaukee launch. Redeemable rewards include a free keg, free birthday drink, the opportunity to pour beer over any member of the staff and the opportunity to do a shot with a bartender. Several thousand points will get you a trip to England.

"The fact that they can personalize the rewards and can have a very unique loyalty solution that sits on an iPad right next to where the transaction is taking place allows the merchant to offer this rich, engaging experience," said Jeffrey. "It gets their customers excited, gets them going."

The philosophy behind it all, he explained, is that there is more to customer loyalty than meets the eye.

 "We realized when we first set out that the psychology behind loyalty is rewarding their customers on a deeper level with engaging rewards that are beyond just monetary – 'buy 10 get one free,'" said Jeffrey. "We wanted to allow our merchants to offer rewards that got their customers excited about coming in more often."

Chris Price, co-owner of the Three Lions, is not certain of the extent to which it’s gotten his customers excited, but he said he feels that it was a smart business move.

"I can’t say that it's helped customer loyalty and I can’t say that it’s hurt," he said. "From what I feel, it’s just our regulars that we already had are now using it to get something back and I think they would have come back anyway. It seems like people are hanging on to the points rather than redeeming them straightaway."

But he would recommend Belly to other merchants.

"Times are changing," he said. "Everyone’s a bit more technology-happy. And it’s a lot easier to track than a punch card. There’s no cheating the system. It wasn't too much of an outgoing cost to try it out." 

Elia said she doesn’t have a way to measure the success of Belly because Classy Girl Cupcakes did not have a rewards program prior to their involvement with the app. 

"But I think it’s definitely made regular customers more regular," she added. "If you get 250 points – which would be visiting us 50 times – you can get an in-store cupcake tasting of every flavor we have, for you and three friends. We have a few customers gunning for that." 

Above all, what she enjoys is the ease of use for the merchant, and she has already recommended it to other business owners.

"They have very good customer service. We have a local rep and a Chicago-based rep. All I have to do is pick up a phone and call when I want to change a reward and it gets done in five minutes," she said. "You have the visual of the iPad on the counter and that does create a little bit more of a relationship with the customer because they want to know what it is and then you explain it to them, and then they think we’re cool because we have it. Kind of cutting-edge." 

Belly is also rolling out a social media feature that, like Foursquare, allows customers to broadcast their check-ins at certain businesses – but unlike Foursquare, the customer has to make a purchase in order to check in. So far 400,000 users have checked in 2.3 million times.

Jeffrey, a Madison native and a "proud Badger alum and Brewers fan" is happy to see Belly take off in Wisconsin. 

"We have a personal relationship with each of these businesses," he said. "What really makes them happy is when they see their customers are happy, and that’s what we’re providing: a mechanism and digital solution to allow them to engage with their customers and get their customers excited about coming back in more often." 

Colleen Jurkiewicz Reporter

Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.