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Using technology to take care of business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2011 - After reading a Tweet on PiStL's Twitter account about a customer driving two hours to meet the Pi pizza truck in Washington, D.C., Pi owner Chris Sommers wanted his staff to buy her lunch. To do this, Sommers had to pull up the customer's profile picture on Twitter to share with his D.C. staff so that they could identify her by the time she arrived.

Situations like this led Sommers to develop Sqwid, an iPhone app he described as a 21st-century comment card, which is set to debut this summer. Using his background as a software engineer for salesforce.com and the help of local freelance developer Bredon Jones, Sommers aims to marry social media and hospitality.

"Not only would I be able to save time, but I'd be able to tie that effort, that cost, that money back to an experience," Sommers said.

The app is meant to serve both businesses and customers, said Sommers. Customers can check in and review a business, which will be shared with their network and the business. Business owners can use this to get and respond to customer feedback.

Sommers said that Pi is continually monitoring social media interactions with customers and often sends gift cards to those who Tweet at Pi, whether they've had a good experience -- or bad. In the retail and hospitality business, he said, customers want to be heard. But current technologies make this difficult; Sqwid would streamline this process.

"We're probably going to end up having a net gain in what we give away, but it will be measurable, so it's that much more intelligent and that much more meaningful for us," Sommers said.

Sommers said that the app will be free for customers, but the payment model for business owners has not been decided yet.It might be free at first and later come at a monthly fee around $29.99, Somers said, and there might be basic and premium accounts.

Although Sommers is developing Sqwid independently of his restaurant, Pi will be the first business to use it. If all goes well, it will be released for general use in the fall, he said.

Pi also offers a new way for its customers to pay -- by cell phone. Pi is one of 50 pilot venues debuting Card Case, a feature of the  Square app. With Card Case, consumers can set up a tab on their iPhone or Droid at participating locations; that allows them to pay with a credit card.

Of the first locations, Pi is the only St. Louis company. Other areas where Card Case is available are: Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco.

Square allows businesses to replace cash registers with iPhones, iPads or Androids. After signing up, the app costs the business 2.75 percent a swipe and comes with a free credit card reader, according to Squareup.com.

"In terms of how it works with their customers, it really helps build loyalty," said spokeswoman Lindsay Wiese. "You go to a vendor, and instead of a register you have an iPad, and it just creates this more welcoming, unique experience. Customers will sign their name with their finger on the iPad."

Wiese said St. Louis was chosen as a pilot location because it has been quick to adapt technology, there is widespread use of Square and CEO Jack Dorsey is from the area.

Pi specifically was sought out. "We always knew [Pi was] a great merchant, they have a lot of customers, they have loyal customers, they knew that would fit their brand and that company well," Wiese said.

Pi now uses Card Case at Pi On The Spot, the roving pizza truck. Sommers said 50 percent of Pi's transactions are made using Square, and that Card Case use is expanding.

"The guests love it because they don't have to get out their wallets and many are already using their smartphones while they wait in line anyway," Sommers said. "But it's really good for us because it cuts down the transaction time for us and our guests, which is very important considering the limited amount of time our guests have to grab lunch and get back to work."

Abby Spudich, a student at the University of Missouri Columbia, is a summer intern with the Beacon.

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