Pizza Strangeness: Domino's, Papa John's, Singing Web Site Updates and Web-Phobic Retail CEOs

Of all of the retail chains we cover, quick-service restaurants are their own niche, and deservedly so. Even within the QSR world, pizza chains are the exceptions, the subgroup that seems to get away with defying all of the established rules that everyone else has to live with. But this week, the E-Commerce groups of two of the largest pizza chains have outdone themselves with moves that are so baffling words escape us.

Let's open this strange-fest with Domino's Pizza. Domino's is no stranger to unorthodox campaigns, such as the one the chain launched early this year declaring how stunningly horrible its products had been just weeks before. (If you haven't seen Stephen Colbert's analysis of that Domino's ad campaign, you really must take a peek. I personally promise you that it's worth it.)

On Monday (Oct. 18), Domino's announced that its Web site's Pizza Tracker feature will be more customizable. "Depending on the theme, Pizza Tracker might sing, cheer or even sweet talk the status of customers' orders from the moment they are prepared to the second they are out the door or ready for pick up," said a company statement.

Sing? The computer will sing the status to customers? Dare we ask what tunes will be used? (Our secret theory: Domino's added the option of allowing the computer to "sweet talk the status" to make the singing option sound better.)

(Note: We have now tried the delivery notification system. Yes, it does indeed sing loudly, depending on which character is selected. Will this be a desirable feature? I don't see it, but don't look at me for guidance: I'm the guy who never saw the value of ringtones.)

For those cynical among us who think of this as merely a marketing stunt that is going to get old stunningly fast, I say pshaw! As Domino's pointed out, this E-Commerce feature was not a stunt. It's a legitimate value-add that will increase the ease-of-use and convenience of E-tailing a pizza. Disbeliever, still?

Quoteth the chain's statement: "We're continuing to add to the convenience of Domino's online ordering and Pizza Tracker, now allowing customers to leave their computers and still follow the ordering process—as long as their speakers are turned up, of course." (This was a wonderful statement on its own, but it's the line about turning speakers up that makes it art.)I'm trying to follow the E-Commerce logic here. For this to work, the customer must leave his computer on and have the browser stay on the Domino's site. If the site is up but the customer has toggled to a separate page with its own audio track (such as a music or video site), it won't be heard.

The customer has to physically stay near enough to the computer to hear the speaker. If the pizza buyer wants to keep the Domino's site up on his screen and stay within a few feet of the computer, the old visual update system would probably work just as easily. For a bonus, it would avoid having to explain to someone nearby why your laptop is "sweet talking" you. (I'm not certain, but I think a pizza chain's site sweet-talking you is one of the top definitions of being weirded out.)

When it comes to weirdness topping, Domino's has made quite a substantial move. The pepperoni gauntlet has been thrown down and Papa John's has picked it up.

Papa John's issued its own statement on Monday (Oct. 18), saying it was relaunching its Web site. Makes sense. The release made a legitimate case that this chain is a longtime E-Commerce supporter, pointing out that "Papa John’s was the first pizza company to introduce online ordering in 2001" and that "the brand has since transacted more than $2 billion in online sales."

Those are very legitimate E-Commerce bona fides. How does the chain seal its argument that it should be trusted with E-Commerce transactions? By proclaiming that it's co-CEO and founder—49-year-old John H. Schnatter—has never made an E-Commerce transaction of any kind. Ever.

Even stranger, the news release said that Schnatter broke his period of non-online-buying when he ordered a pizza from his own company's site and that the moment was videotaped. What's so strange about that? The video clearly does not show Schnatter making an E-Commerce purchase. On the contrary, it goes out of its way to show the founder standing by while his 12-year-old son orders a pizza online.

What's the point? Why trumpet that your co-CEO cares so little about E-Commerce that he's never tried it once, not even for his own company's products?

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