Service Lets Customers Buy with a Phone Number

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 04-07-2005
When customers step into a cab from the Hello Taxi company in Brookline, Mass., they don't have to worry about fumbling in their pockets for cash, or about swiping their credit card in a moving vehicle, or even about finding their wireless fob to wave in front of a reader. To pay and tip the driver, passengers just say the last four digits of their cell phones, and then they can run.

Hello Taxi is one of about 80 merchants in the Boston area working with a creative means of payment processing from a company called MobileLime. MobileLime CEO Bob Wesley says the service is much more than a payment method, as it also gives retailers real-time marketing, a cardless loyalty program and a CRM (customer relationship management) package.

The program uses the customer's phone number in a few different ways. First, the customer has to establish an account with MobileLime, which includes having a credit card on file. That's how the payments are actually processed.

The phone number identifies the customer. For anti-fraud and advertising purposes, customers must identify the merchant they want to use about an hour before making a purchase.

That phone number also gives the merchant a way to send real-time text messages to that customer, perhaps touting a one-day sale on an item the customer has previously purchased or maybe alerting them that the store has only two of a particular product remaining.

"One of the main reasons we signed up was to send promos to cell phones. It's like free advertising," said Amid Elkhoury, owner of Hello Taxi, who added that he appreciated being able to limit his messages by zip code.

Elkhoury also offers customers discounts for using the service. "Our coupons could be, let's say, $2 off the next ride. And someone who received that coupon on their phone could even forward it to a friend without the first person losing their coupon," he said.

One retail customer said she was intrigued because of the service's ability to track the ROI (return on investment) of her marketing investments.

"We can measure the effectiveness of the messages within days. If a special goes for one week, we can see if there's heavy activity on a certain product. It gives us the ability to track everything to the day," said Chryssa Georgalis, marketing manager at the Super88 grocery chain.

"Marketing is always a challenge. We do retail advertising in newspapers, but it's difficult to track. You can't be specific. With MobileLime, we can look at the history of activity for an item and see a 20 percent increase and know where it came from."

MobileLime's Wesley refused to discuss pricing, but two customers said they're each paying $50 a month plus a per-transaction charge (Georgalis said it averaged about 25 cents per transaction). Elkhoury added that he also had to pay about $300 for wiring and equipment.

Another feature is that customers can use the service to electronically send someone a gift card, which amounts to a cash credit. To send a gift, all that the sender needs to know is the recipient's cell phone number and that they have an account.

"So far, it's going well. Many people use it not just for the discount. They use it because it's easy, convenient," Georgalis said. "They don't have to carry around a wallet full of loyalty cards. It's an added advantage."

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Georgalis added that the ability to send customized messaging was potentially the most appealing aspect. "We send SMS [Short Message Service] messages to our existing customer base, but we can't send them to other people," Georgalis said. "It's an effective medium. [But] we don't send a message to customers unless it has a value. We're very careful about that."

How often does she reach out and SMS someone? "On average, we send about one message a month, but there are months when we don't send anything," she said. "We'll also send messages for special occasions like the Chinese New Year. Or during the Boston Democratic Convention last year, we sent messages enticing people to come out. People thought everything was going to be madness."

The origins of the name are varied. The company has said LIME stands for Loyalty, Information, Money and Entertainment, but CEO Wesley said it's because green is the color of money. After some more prodding, he said that he and colleagues actually came up with the name when they were out drinking. It was after the fourth round of margaritas—traditionally served with slices of lime—that someone suggested MobileLime, he said.

"During the fourth round of margaritas: That's the best time to come up with a name," Wesley said.

Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

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