2020 has been an unprecedented year in every manner of the word, with life as we know it grinding to a halt in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. However, in an attempt to shine a light in the darkness, Niantic offered 1,000 small businesses a lifeline through its Local Business Recovery Initiative, offering them a free sponsored gym in Pokémon GO to try to help attract more customers and get them back on their feet.
A couple of months ago, we spoke to Danielle Jeffery of Blitzkrieg Chop, an inclusive hair salon in Worthing on the south coast of England. Her business was getting back to its feet after the UK’s first lockdown had seen it close for three months. Luckily, it had been the recipient of Niantic’s Local Business Recovery Initiative, and she’d just received her sponsored gym when we spoke.
“We lost everything so quickly,” Jeffery told us at the time, “and then to come back and get the nomination – it was really cool that our clients thought that we were worthy of that.”
However, two months later the UK has been through a second lockdown and Worthing is now in an unprecedented Tier 4 – the strictest tier of UK local restrictions, which sees hair salons and other non-essential businesses close again. We caught up with Jeffery to see if Niantic’s scheme had made a difference to her business, or if Pokémon GO’s pandemic-induced remote features were counteracting its aim.
“The sponsorship hasn’t quite had the same impact as it should have,” Jeffery explains. Following a second spike of coronavirus cases and more lockdowns, Jeffrey doesn’t feel she’s experienced the full effects of the sponsorship. “I think if we’d have come out of the first lockdown and things had carried on progressing in the good way that they were, it probably would have had more of an impact.”
Multiple features that Niantic promised have not been implemented due to safety concerns. The company understandably doesn’t want people crowding around gyms for events and raids in the height of a pandemic, so Jeffery hasn’t been able to schedule raids or organise events at the gym she’s had for three months. However, Niantic is pushing remote raiding and continuing to host Raid Hours every week as well as launching new Pokémon like Espurr, which is only available through raids. Now that players can raid from anywhere in the world if they get an invite – why can’t businesses schedule those raids?
Jeffery is happy that Niantic is keeping on top of player safety, but the two systems seem a little incompatible. “It’s great from a socially conscious point of view, I’m really happy that people aren’t coming out. But also, please come and spend some money at my shop.”
Public safety is very important to Jeffery, but she also needs to keep the lights on at the salon. When we visited in September, she showed us the expensive visors that all staff wear while cutting and styling hair, to minimise the spread of the virus. However, even with all her safety measures in place, she doesn’t know whether the sponsored gym is drawing people to the salon or not. “With remote raiding,” she explains, “I’ve seen people [in local raid chats] go ‘I’m doing a raid at Blitzkrieg, does anyone need an invite?’ So I think people are definitely more aware of us, it’s just turning that into revenue…”
Jeffery has big plans for when the pandemic eases and business can resume to a near-normal state, including putting Lures on the gym and hosting Community Day events to merge the gym and the shop together. At the moment, with the focus on remote raiding and lack of features available, the two seem like separate entities. And while some features are disabled due to the pandemic, others just haven’t worked very well.
Jeffery had put an offer on the sponsored gym – 10% off the barber – as a way of bringing Pokémon players into the shop. However, despite the fact she can change the offer twice a month, it took so long to be approved that there was no benefit for her. “About three weeks ago Niantic launched the option to put a promotion on your gym,” she says. “Unfortunately they took nearly three weeks to review my promotion, so by the time they actually approved it, there was only two days left before it expired… It’s not fit for purpose.”
Now she knows to expect a long wait for approval and to set a longer offer in future, but this was not communicated at all. But Jeffery still doesn’t understand how you can possibly change the offer twice a month, as Niantic offers, if you have to wait longer than that to get approved. As one of the few sponsored functions that is currently active, she’s disappointed that the process is so unclear and Niantic is so uncommunicative.
As it is, she also has no way of knowing whether people are even coming to the gym. She can see how many people have interacted, but not if they were at the gym in-person.
“We get quite a bit of footfall coming to the gym,” Jeffery tells us, “but unfortunately it doesn’t say if people are coming remotely.”
Remote raids: get the best Pokémon in Pokémon GO from bed
Remote raiding is obviously the safer option, and Jeffery is very appreciative of it as a concept to improve player safety, but it seems to counteract the sponsored gyms that Niantic has rolled out to help businesses during the pandemic. Ultimately, Jeffery doesn’t know whether she’ll continue to sponsor the gym after the free year is over – she hasn’t been able to fully utilise the sponsorship functions due to worsening conditions in the United Kingdom and miscommunication from Niantic, .
Although player safety is paramount, Jeffrey has been less than impressed with the deal so far. Ultimately, she doesn’t know if she’ll continue to sponsor the gym after the free year is over.
Regardless, Jeffrey is staying positive. Her grand plans for Community Day events – when it’s safe to do so – are a Pokémonified continuation of the charity head shave events she has held in the past, and are a vision for a future where the business and the Pokémon GO community can become one.