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Shop local movement gains traction with Bank OZK app

Margie Manning

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OZK Labs at 100 5th St. S. in St. Petersburg

Bank OZK is preparing to launch an app that gives St. Petersburg restaurants and stores a chance to get their names in front of potential customers.

Pooja Pendharkar, product manager, OZK Labs, presenting at 1 Million Cups

The app, OZK Rewards, will offer discounts from the local businesses, with a focus on retail trade and hospitality, said Pooja Pendharkar, product manager for the bank, speaking at startup showcase 1 Million Cups St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

The app is being developed at OZK Labs, Bank OZK’s innovation center in downtown St. Petersburg. Bank OZK (Nasdaq: OZK), formerly Bank of the Ozarks, acquired the site when it bought St. Petersburg-based C1 Bank in 2016.

“We are charged with helping the bank grow outside of the traditional branch network,” said Nikki Roche, assistant vice president, product growth, for OZK Labs. “We don’t want to invest in more real estate. We want to create beautiful digital experiences that can scale the bank outside of the branch network.”

While Bank OZK is based in Little Rock, Ark., its foundation is as a community bank, she said. In addition, Marcio deOliveira, president of OZK Labs, previously was chief technology officer at C1 Bank and has a passion for the community. He has always wanted to foster the shop local movement, Roche said.

“If you spend money in your community that’s where it stays. It’s a win-win,” she said. “We think of [the app] as a way to incentive our personal customers to interact with our business customers. We are not a bank that’s big and servicing large enterprise organizations. We service small and medium-size businesses, and we can create that win-win relationship through technology.”

There are strong economic drivers for shopping local as well, Pendharkar said.

“Local businesses generate about 70 percent more local economic activity per square foot than big box retail groups and online retail,” she said. “Community and independent retailers create two times the jobs with the same amount of revenue. That’s why we thought a rewards app would be a good way to impact the community and support it.”

While there are plenty of rewards apps, OZK Rewards is unique because it will only feature local retailers – not national chains such as Starbucks or Walmart.

It’s not exclusively for bank customers, but businesses that bank with Bank OZK will get a featured listing on the app. However, any local retailer or restaurant can list their business for free. The amount of discount they want to offer is up to them, Pendharkar said.

OZK Labs has fined application development, and now is working to onboard local businesses. There’s a landing page — ozkrewards.com — where prospective user can sign up for the St. Petersburg pilot.

The goal is to make the project scaleable and offer the app in other cities where Bank OZK does business, featuring local retailers in those cities.

OZK Labs also is looking for feedback.

“The innovation lab’s goal is to be so customer-centric that we only make products that people want,” Pendharkar said. “That’s why user research is important and we’ve heavily invested in that.”

NOTE: Bank OZK is a sponsor of the St. Pete Catalyst.

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