Savage business owner Rob Diffenderfer says he never had much luck advertising his shop, GMS Photo & Video, through online marketing to increase his customer base. The new nationwide app, LocaLynx, was the exception, he said, after he registered the business on the marketing tool, which locally promotes small businesses within a 30-mile radius.
LocaLynx was launched by its three founders from Mansfield, Ohio, in October 2015, offering communities coupons and deals for nearby businesses, while promoting local goods and services. The app has since launched in communities across 15 states and Canada, including Maryland, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Colorado and Wyoming.
North Laurel resident Amanda Fields, the LocaLynx Maryland territory manager, said the free app was introduced to Prince George's County during the city of Laurel's Main Street Festival last May, when the app had 500 downloads in 24 hours.
The app later garnered attention in Howard County, where businesses such as RED Wine, Beer and Spirits in Clarksville, Lucero's Pizza and Subs in North Laurel and Carrabba's Italian Grill in Ellicott City, signed up.
In her experience with retail apps, Susan Reda, editor of STORES Magazine, said consumers tend to think differently about mobile retail apps compared to other apps they download on their phones. The retailer's app must be significant to the consumer, she said, otherwise, it'll be deleted from their device.
"If I'm going to give a retailer real estate on my small screen, they're going to be of top value to me," Reda said. "It may not be a department store app because while I might love Macy's, I probably go to Macy's four times a year. ... But someone like CVS Pharmacy, who has built into their mobile app the ability for me to reorder prescriptions, they have value to me because now I don't need to make a phone call."
Popular shopping apps, which feature low prices and worthy discounts, include LivingSocial, Groupon, Amazon and eBay, as well as corporation apps such as Walmart, Target and Best Buy.
Retailers have "crossed the threshold of a physical store," but are learning to develop a mobile strategy that benefits their customer base without becoming a nuisance, Reda said. Reda points to eBags, an online travel retailer, as one of the more successful mobile apps because they've narrowed down their audience: travelers.
"Consumers love their mobile. It's never more than six inches from their hand," she said. "A few years back, part of mobile marketing would be letting somebody receive a notification on their mobile device that they were in some sort of close proximity to a store. For awhile, that did have value, but as we now have turned our mobile phones into an appendage, it becomes an intrusion and the last thing we want is to be the person who bugs the consumer."
According to Andrew Gazdecki, founder and CEO of mobile app publishing platform Bizness Apps, apps command 86 percent of the average time consumers spend on their mobile devices, while time spent on mobile websites is decreasing to an average of 22 minutes per day.
"Online shopping has reshaped people's buying habits," Gazdecki said. "For instance, in 2015, physical stores had people swarming to snatch up the best Black Friday deals. Last year, however, the tides changed as people turned to online shopping."
In a 2015 study by Statista, he said, global mobile apps made $69.7 billion and it was projected that mobile apps would make $188.9 billion through app stores and in-app advertising by 2020.
"This 'mobile revolution' is transforming everyday lives and the brands we touch," Gazdecki said.
Jenna Hickinbotham, LocaLynx's national sales manager, said communities using their app are adapting to the nationwide "shop local" trend. As locals pay more attention to small businesses, she said, they learn how shopping can be done in an tight-knit community.
Maryland is one of the most successful locations for LocaLynx, Hickinbotham said, because Fields creates friendships with business owners.
"We see the app being very valuable not only in Maryland, but also everywhere else," Hickinbotham said. "Our biggest goal is to make this a nationwide app, so that you can use this as you're traveling to different communities and finding what's local instead of going to those big chain stores."
Michelle Coleman, manager at RED Wine, Beer and Spirits, said the business has yet to see new customers because of the app. For the two-year-old Clarksville business, Coleman said, most customers find out about the store after passing by.
The business recently started working with its own marketing director to promote its goods on Facebook.
RED is also registered on the Untappd app, which locates nearby bars, breweries and beers. However, Coleman said, marketing apps, such as LocaLynx, require a consumer base before it becomes worthwhile for a business to get involved.
"I think that your biggest challenge is getting people on board to actually use [these apps] and having enough people use them so that it becomes valuable for everyone," Coleman said. "If people are not using them, then there's no sense of us being on it. Whether or not [LocaLynx] works is kind of a toss up."
Fields and her husband, David, were friends with one of the founders, Kevin Haring, who is currently the company's chief operations officer. Shortly after their first meeting, Fields said she fell in love with the idea.
"I'm a huge bargain hunter," said Fields, a mother of four and native of Mansfield. "I always want to support local small businesses because that's what I grew up with and I know how important it is to do that. I'm literally walking door-to-door and talking to businesses owners."
Businesses have three options to create and design their own page within the app, featuring their deals, hours and information and driving directions. The basic option, which is free, gives businesses a one-touch phone call ability and address feature, one location/area served, one category listing and a direct link to their website.
For $59 a month, Fields said businesses receive priority updating and a company coupon or product spotlight in addition to the free features. A third option, costing $99 a month, upgrades features to three locations/areas served, two category listings, three company coupons or product spotlights and a deal banner.
"It's affordable and they get to drive it how they want," Fields said. "They decide what deals they want to offer [and] we're able to track it with analytics. The deals are redeemed right on your phone. You don't have to print something out or remember where you found it."
Diffenderfer said he joined LocaLynx last Christmas after learning about its amenities from Fields during a photo shoot with her family. The storefront studio is run by Diffenderfer and his wife, Joalis, who have been recognized for their photography and cinematography in engagements, weddings, magazines and television.
His business had little to no success using other marketing websites and apps, like Yelp and WeddingWire, he said.
LocaLynx brought in new customers, Diffenderfer said, using the coupons on the app for Christmas and Valentine's Day specials. An anniversary special is underway for photo discounts and a free chocolate-covered bottle of wine from Sweet Cascades Chocolatier in Ellicott City, another business on LocaLynx.
"I'm a true believer that you can't be in enough places" to advertise, Diffenderfer said. "With the app, the way it looked, I just thought it was a good fit. … I was really impressed that it actually generated work. I've been through so many online places that offer you bids on jobs and you don't get anything."
Haring said LocaLynx – available on Apple and Android – avoids the review feature that allows users to comment about their experiences with businesses. Rather than risking false reviews, he said, the app focuses on localizing community goods and services.
"There are new apps popping up all over," Haring said. "We feel we're different because we have that local presence, so if a business has an issue or trouble they have somebody local who knows their culture."
The LocaLynx founders spent between $50,000 and $60,000 to get the app into its beta phase, approaching a total of $200,000 since getting the app off the ground. Territory managers are assigned to each state, where they learn about the surrounding communities to find the best way to approach local businesses.
Hickinbotham, the national sale manager, is currently in Carmel, Ind., to prepare for the app's launch in the area, she said last week. Once territory managers find representation through nearby businesses at fairs, festivals, networking groups or farmers markets, Hickinbotham said they develop contacts who are looking for more exposure.
"When we're starting a new territory, we offer this app to them completely free because we are full of integrity," she said. "We don't want businesses paying for something that is not going to work for them, although we've seen that this can work for every business. We're making this so that it can be customized to their needs."
Unlike the marketing website Groupon, Haring said LocaLynx is restricted to a 30-mile radius to hone in on nearby stores and restaurants. Approximately 8,000 businesses are registered with LocaLynx, with 40,000 to 50,000 users. In the next year, Haring said they hope to hit 150,000 users as they continue introducing the app in more states.
Getting on board
Nancy LaJoice, membership director for the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber, said she was impressed with the latest marketing app, which might be used to benefit chamber members in the near future. The "handy" app is a way to "stay connected and learn about businesses" in the Maryland region, she said.
"It's an excellent way to promote local small business and provide buyers with discounts. I see it as a win-win," LaJoice said. "We're all about promoting and supporting business [and] this is a modern marketing tool for doing that."
LocaLynx shows people what is available in the immediate area, she added, and drives money back into the community.
Diffenderfer predicts LocaLynx will only continue to rise in popularity across Maryland. To design your own page within the app and provide feedback to a territory manager will aids any business, he said.
"I told Amanda about things I'd like to do and she was very open to my ideas, which I liked," Diffenderfer said. "I like the fact that it's locally based on the ZIP codes that you put in, and you can run coupons and update all the stuff yourself. Now, I have the ability to go in and make changes myself [and] it's one of the few apps that don't cost me anything."