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Want to check your coat? Now, there's an app for that

May 5, 2012

Bars and nightclubs will soon have their own pickup line for getting desirable patrons’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Indianapolis-based upstart CoatChex is preparing the launch of an iPad-based, ticketless coat-check system for bars through which a patron enters his phone number to check a coat and, later, to retrieve it.

CoatChex Derek Pacqué and his buddies started checking coats as a money-making gig in college. After learning the hard way using paper receipts, Pacqué developed an iPad-based system. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

With each patron plopping down a couple of bucks to check a coat, a nightspot can make up to $1,000 in extra revenue on a busy night.

But potentially more valuable than the revenue might be the personal information a patron volunteers as part of the coat-checking process.

Patrons who grant their permission to be contacted could, through CoatChex, receive e-mails about drink specials or bands scheduled to play the following weekend.

“What really captured [the bars’] attention was the data,” said Derek Pacqué, founder of CoatChex and a recent graduate of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Besides giving bars a way to conduct e-mail- and text-marketing, the data collected includes a photo of the customer and his coat taken by the iPad.

The photo helps the person checking coats know that the right person gets his or her coat back when leaving. It’s also a way for bar or nightclub employees to better put a name with a face when the patron makes a return visit.

“It’s a marketing service for the bars. … It’s almost a customer loyalty concept,” said Gerry Hays, who teaches venture capital and entrepreneurial finance at IU and is a principal of Slane Capital, which has invested in Pacqué’s firm.

The potential market for CoatChex: 47,000 establishments serving alcoholic beverages in the United States, according to U.S. Census data.

There are thousands more such bars and restaurants in chillier Canada, where one is even more inclined to check a parka and a toque. Northern Europe is also rife with possibilities.

Pacqué tested his solution at Super Bowl events downtown in February, using it to check the coats of guests of the Maxim magazine and ESPN parties.

It’s also being used by Bloomington bar chain Kilroy’s.

More recently, Pacqué exhibited his solution at the Nightclub and Bar Convention and Trade Show in Las Vegas.

“People wanted to buy it on the spot,” said Pacqué, who came back to Indiana with a list of hundreds of potential customers. But he couldn’t deliver because he’s still preparing to ramp up production of what essentially is a turnkey, solution-in-a-box.

It consists of an iPad built into a kiosk of sorts—and a foldout box of coat racks on which coats will be hung. The reason for the latter is that many bars don’t have dedicated coat racks to accommodate large numbers of guests. The price for the turnkey system is likely to be “in the low thousands” of dollars.

coat-chex-factbox.gifPacqué worked with John Webster of the Martinsville Business Development Corp. on equipment design. Also helping was the Indianapolis-based tech incubator Developer Town and software writing firm Mantid Interactive.

Many establishments currently don’t want to deal with coat checking because of hassles such as what to do with a coat that’s checked but not retrieved by its owner.

“It’s quite a pain to answer the phones and get everyone their coats back,” said Liza Prall, general manager at Kilroy’s.

But CoatChex is responsible for left-behind coats, Prall said.

Pacqué learned the intricacies of coat checking while a senior at IU.

He went to a bar near campus one cold day but couldn’t find a place to store his coat. So he stuffed it behind a Christmas tree. When he went to leave, it was gone.

He proposed to bars that he and his buddies operate a coat-checking business for them.

“I sort of made a deal with them,” he said. “They just said, ‘You come in and give us a percentage.’”

And so they did, using a traditional coat-checking technique of issuing paper tags. But at closing time, patrons were often liquored-up and couldn’t find their tags or just left without their coats.

By the end of the winter, Pacqué had a collection of nearly 200 coats. It was a hassle to track down owners. They’d also somehow lost six coats, which cost them some bucks.

“There’s a reason why bars don’t want to be in this business,” Hays said.

But the hassle was worth it. That first year, Pacqué and his buddies made a small fortune.

“Me and my friends were splitting $300 a night,” Pacqué said.

They later began looking for ways to use technology to improve the system. Pacqué approached Hays, the long-suffering recipient of business plans over the years—most of them losers.

At first, Hays thought Pacqué’s idea was another dud.

“I said [to Hays], ‘I made $50,000,’” Pacqué said.

“I said, ‘Whoa,’” recalled Hays, who has helped Pacqué refine the concept of the iPad delivery model.

They also see the potential for the coat-checking electronic kiosks at shopping malls, where customer data could be valuable to mall vendors.

“It’s more than just e-mails. It’s phone number, customer patterns such as loyalty and length of visit. [It’s] really amazing all the information a simple coat check can collect,” Pacqué noted.

To get beyond the seasonality of coats, they’re looking at uses of the system in warm-weather venues. One idea is to use a solution for valet car parking services—even for dry cleaners. They’ve filed for patent application for such uses.

Another idea is to sell packs of credits from the CoatChex website. A frequent bar patron could purchase enough credits to check a coat 50 times a season, for example.

Pacqué and Hays might seek new investors within the next few months.•

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