Video Streaming At Pizza Hut, Sears, Wal-Mart: Will Video Kill The Retail Stars? (Well, Maybe Just Hurt Them A Little)

Video streaming by retailers that by no means specialize in video streaming—including mega-brands Wal-Mart, Sears and Pizza Hut—has been criticized by some who see little profit in the moves. But the idea was never to become a 20th Century Fox. The idea is to somehow engage an audience who is expecting high-production videos at all times.

Still, are the extreme bandwidth and related demands of streaming video going to end up undermining more strategic network functions, such as selling stuff? Pizza Hut CIO Baron Concors was afraid that it might indeed do that. He still went ahead with video. But he wanted a third party—one that would keep these bandwidth-breaking B-movies far away from his pizza-selling sites—involved.

"I was not interested in undertaking the effort to build out a YouTube-like infrastructure, along with the concerns about bandwidth, security and site performance," Concors said.

Consumers told Pizza Hut that "they wanted something to entertain them after they ordered and were waiting for their pizza to arrive," he said. Hmmmm. How about reading? Calling a friend? Maybe interacting with a family member? Petting a dog is always good.

What did Concors have in mind? "We decided on a mix of movie trailers, clips and online games and ran that by a consumer group who liked what they saw."

The concept is a seriously good one (assuming you've already laughed me out of the room with that absurd "reading" suggestion). If the customer wants to be entertained, why not have something customized to precisely fill the space between ordering and food arriving?

Why not let the customer associate all kinds of good feelings with the Pizza Hut brand, far beyond the food itself? There's actually a really good reason: Delivering a film—and maintaining it without hiccups, at the high resolution consumers today expect—can take a lot of bandwidth and drag down page performance for everyone else."There was no way to estimate the potential usage. But if only half of our online customers used it after they ordered, we would be looking at tens of millions of streams," Concors said.

On top of that, Concors—who, appropriately enough, has an additional title beyond CIO: he's also Pizza Hut's Chief Digital Officer—had other business concerns. Namely, videos are expensive and producers these days are getting ultra-anal about protecting copyright. That meant Pizza Hut needed to precisely control what videos were shown when—and for how long—and not every video on the chain's server should be accessible by every consumer at all times. (Chief Legal Counsel and CIOs are the world's most natural blood enemies.)

"The concerns around security are really around intellectual property. I didn't want to manage the risk of people downloading trailers, clips or games that were not to be downloaded," Concors said. "The video files do not reside on our servers. They reside on our partner's infrastructure."

Lawyers aside, the most concrete risk to the chain from the video project is the opposite of the benefit. If the benefit is that customers engender lots of additional good feelings about the retail brand, the opposite is if bad video performance makes those consumers think less of the retail brand.

With a viewership as large and young as Pizza Hut is likely to attract, such disappointment wouldn't be that difficult to achieve. Unlike images and powerful Web designs and even streaming audio (whether on the desktop or on mobile), streams of high-quality video are impressively unforgiving. The eye will detect the most subtle hiccup or pause, something quite likely to happen when, for example, there's a sharp spike in traffic during a SuperBowl commercial break. (Let's not get into whether the commercials were more interesting than the actual game this year.)

Concors said such performance concerns had been contractually addressed by Pizza Hut. "I can't get into specifics around the contract, but be ensured there were SLAs around performance and availability and usability among the various browsers," he said.

If this movie mania effort succeeds, who knows where it could lead? Pizza options might expand beyond pepperoni and sausage to include romance, adventure and horror. (To avoid confusion with its product, Domino's would likely have to remove the horror option.)

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