Long Island businesses are seeking to capture the attention of players of "Pokemon Go," the phenomenally popular mobile game that has seized the imagination of millions.
“My sales are up about 25 percent across the board” because of "Pokemon Go," said Roger Rutherford, 40, general manager of Port Jefferson Frigate, a candy store located near the water in downtown Port Jefferson.
Rutherford said that last Monday night he saw about 200 teenagers and young adults milling in front of his store and in the surrounding streets between 8 and 10, playing the game.
He said he was skeptical at first of “a bunch of teenagers running around” his store, but when they started buying milkshakes during their Poke-hunts, “It didn’t take long for me to realize how it’s impacting business.” The shop now offers a weeknight special on milkshakes to players, he said.
The free-to-download game was released July 6 in the United States and has rocketed to the top of Apple’s App Store and Google Play, garnering an estimated 15 million downloads in a few days, according to SensorTower, a mobile app researcher.
The smartphone-based game has outpaced the daily usage rates of popular social media apps like WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat, and was installed on more Android phones in the United States than casual-dating app Tinder, according to research by SimilarWeb, a digital market information firm.
"Pokemon Go" players — known as Pokemon trainers — download the app onto their Apple or Android smartphones, create an account and customize an avatar, or on-screen representation of themselves. Unlike traditional video games, Pokemon Go requires users to rise from their couches and walk around.
The game uses the phone’s GPS to create a real-time animated version of the landscape the players walk through. As players move in the real world, their on-screen avatars follow.
The point of the game, similar to the first Pokemon game released in the United States for Nintendo’s Gameboy in 1998, is to catch and train fictional monsters called Pokemon, such as Pikachu, Venusaur or the coveted Charizard. Players then pit their Pokemon against monsters belonging to other players.
Travel is key
To engage in these battles, or to stock up on in-game items, players travel to points of interest that the game calls gyms and PokeStops. They are located in front of real-world destinations, such as parks, museums, churches and, most importantly for local businesses, Main Street storefronts.
Local businesses are taking notice, and some have quickly found ways to attract players into their shops.
The immense popularity of the game presents a sales opportunity with “no downside,” said Marshal Cohen, senior retail analyst with NPD Group, a Port Washington-based market research company.
“It’s creating a vehicle for retailers and brands,” Cohen said. It’s still unclear “how far this thing can go,” he said. But for the time being, the game has the potential to help retailers grab the attention of that elusive demographic: the millennials — ages 19 to 35, according to the Pew Research Center.
Cohen said that businesses have been “trying to figure out how in this new world of technology to connect with the younger generation.” "Pokemon Go" could make that connection easier, he said.
Rutherford, the Frigate general manager, said that a large statue on the shop’s property memorializing the 9/11 terrorist attacks was a PokeStop in the game, attracting lots of players to his doorstep. But he said he didn’t know what was going on until he was told by his assistant manager, Courtney Kochmann, 22.
Kochmann has led the store’s marketing efforts to the players, creating a new Pokemon Happy Hour promotion, during which the store offers two-for-one milkshakes Monday through Thursday nights.
“There are a lot of PokeStops and gyms” in downtown Port Jefferson, “so this is where all the players come to play,” Kochmann said.
Southside, a bar and restaurant in Bay Shore, has created Pokemon-themed cocktails called Team Blue and Team Red, named after two of the three teams that players can join.
“I saw a massive group of people outside the restaurant the other day, and I came outside and they kind of gave me the rundown,” said Bobby Deutsch, 29, general manager of Southside. A garden at the restaurant’s front entrance was a PokeStop.
“Anytime that there’s traffic outside the restaurant you want to bring ’em in and keep them hydrated.”
A sign outside Southside cautions, “Pokemon enthusiasts must show ID.”
Talk their game
Menachem Luchins, 34, owner of Escape Pod Comics in Huntington village, said sales at his business, which is located near three PokeStops, have gone up about 25 percent since the game’s release. Luchins said what’s really beneficial is being able to talk knowledgeably about the game with players to create “an environment that makes them feel comfortable.”
Offering discounts “to bring people into the store is not going to do anything for you if you can’t engage with the people,” he said. While he’s not planning to offer discounts, Luchins said he’s thinking of putting out power strips in the store so Pokemon trainers can charge up.
Some businesses not lucky enough to be near a PokeStop, such as Mulcahy’s Pub & Concert Hall in Wantagh, are finding other ways to get players through the door.
Tim Murray, 24, head of promotions for the family-owned establishment, added a new twist to his summertime 1990s-themed music event on Friday: Customers who show their "Pokemon Go" app, or dress in Pokemon-related apparel such as T-shirts with game characters, get free entrance to the event — normally $10.
“It doesn’t get much more ’90s than Pokemon,” Murray said. He hopes there will eventually be some way his business can apply to be a PokeStop.
PokeStops are designated by the game’s developer, Niantic Inc., a spinoff from Google parent Alphabet. Currently, the PokeStops are locations recycled from a previous game made by Niantic, which took suggestions from players.
"Pokemon Go" players can fill out a form at Niantic’s website to suggest new locations for PokeStops. And business sponsorship deals will be available sometime in the future, according to a New York Times report.
Some businesses, such as dessert shop SubZero Ice Cream, in Patchogue, are finding ways to use in-game features to lure potential patrons.
Dave Zollo, 25, part owner and operator of SubZero, said he grew up with Pokemon. After downloading the new game he discovered that his shop — which he opened with his family July 1 — was situated in the vicinity of a neighboring PokeStop.
He also learned that players can purchase “lure modules” using real-world money, and place them on the virtual PokeStops to increase the likelihood of monsters showing up. On screen, areas that have lures are denoted by a spinning ring of flower petals, and are a major draw for players.
Zollo bought a pack of lures for about $10.
“When I activated the first one, within two minutes two kids came in” and bought lemonade, said Zollo, whose shop specializes in serving fruit drinks and made-to-order flash-frozen ice cream. “Within 10 minutes [the lure] paid for itself.”
Since then, Zollo has kept the lures going between noon and 5 p.m., bringing in about 10 extra customers an hour, he said.
There are several other PokeStops on Main Street, he said, “but mine always has a lure going when business is slow during daytime hours.”
Pokemon was originally a video game, card game and television show in the 1990s, when players were told, “Gotta catch ‘em all.”
“Pokemon is something that this generation of 18- to 25-year-olds — they grew up on that,” and it’s “one of the few things that crossed gender lines,” retail analyst Cohen said.
Digital marketing firms are advising clients to join in on the fun and do what they can to appeal to game-playing customers.
Nicole Larrauri, president at Melville-based EGC Group, a digital marketing firm, said her firm published a blog post to teach clients what the game is and how to consider it in marketing.
“The first recommendation, obviously, is find out if you’re a PokeStop,” Larrauri said. “The goal is to celebrate the trend and hitch your wagon to what’s going on and use it as another way to drive traffic.”
Chains taking notice
National chains operating on Long Island are also seeking to attract gamers.
Jim Notarnicola, 65, is chief marketing officer of Dallas-based Red Mango, an EGC Group client and national chain of 200 frozen yogurt shops with 25 locations on Long Island. Only a few days after the game’s release, Notarnicola said, the corporate office was inundated with calls from franchisees asking how they planned to capitalize on its success. Since then he has advised franchisees and even senior management to download the game to see what it’s about.
“What we’re encouraging our franchisees to do is buy a pack of lures and see what happens,” said Notarnicola, who has run marketing for Blockbuster and 7-Eleven. The company is also looking at ways it can integrate Pokemon Go into the planned release of new yogurt flavors.
Cohen of NPD Group said businesses should move quickly to take advantage of the phenomenon.
It’s unclear whether "Pokemon Go" will stay popular or simply become a “flash in the pan,” he said. And he warned that as more businesses get involved, their presence could alienate the audience that the game now attracts.
“As these things roll out and become commercialized, they change,” he said.
But even if "Pokemon Go" fades, Cohen said, it will have successors, as imitators tap other icons of popular culture and create similar apps with new themes and gimmicks.
“This is stage one,” Cohen said. “We’ve got like five more iterations to come.”