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A slew of membership-based loyalty plays such as Belly, Five Stars, SpotOn, MOGL, Spring, Perka, Thanx and others launched around 2011 to focus more on customer loyalty than new customer acquisitions. The business model: charge SMBs monthly fees; recognize customers via Point of Sales or other means; drive new purchases and loyalty.

Since then –but not recently– a lot of VC Money has flowed into the space. At the top level, Five Stars raised $42.7 milllion, and Belly raised $30 million. First Data likely spent a similar amount in purchasing Perka.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? The companies haven’t scaled as quickly as they thought. Local sales channel issues have been paramount. There have also been issues attracting customer signups, a glut of promotions options; and a shortage of attractive merchant offers. Without significant marketing budgets, there are also under-developed brands. The economics of the services also haven’t been great. It’s tough to score big with high built-in costs for tablets, etc.

Here’s the situation today: It is hard to see how many subscribers each company has, but Belly may be the leader – especially if the space is narrowly defined so that it doesn’t include the larger, financial institution-oriented, card-linked offer players. It has 10,000 announced customers, each presumably paying near the rate card of between $100 and $199. Eighteen markets have been fully launched. Five Stars may be the second largest, in terms of merchant count. It is forecasting 8,000 SMBs by the end of 2015.

Meanwhile, the companies have learned a lot and keep working at it. Today, Belly announced it was adding several enhancements. These include DIY offer generation for the SMBs; and analytics for SMB email marketing campaigns. Most intriguing to us are efforts to leverage its Apple relationship, which is no surprise. Belly was among the first to embrace Apple Passbook, and the company’s salesforces rely on iPads. Under the new deal, Belly is included as one of 40 + partners for Apple Pay and one of the most significant players tied to smaller SMBs.

Will the relationship deepen? Would Apple, for instance, be interested in acquiring Belly? As Perka executives noted after its sale to First Data, there are real advantages to working with a major partner. In a story published by Crain’s Chicago Business, CEO Logan LaHive said “This is an incredibly exciting new distribution channel. It allows us not to just focus on direct sales but focus on resellers and other channels, with new partnerships that will open up new geographies.”

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