Pizza chain Papa John's International is about to start taking some new phone orders, but this time there won't be a voice on the other end.
The restaurant chain is rolling out a service that lets customers order pies via text message. Customers first create an account online where they save as many as four different "favorite" orders that include any combination of pizza, sides and drinks, as well as a delivery address or carry-out information and payment type. Once that's complete, customers can send a text message at any time using the shorthand "FAV1," "FAV2," "FAV3" or "FAV4."
A big part of Papa John's motivation is marketing. The company hopes that text-message ordering will provide a new channel for it to hit customers with such things as coupons and updates on new menu items. Another catch for consumers: As with all text-message services, standard text-messaging fees apply.
The chain, based in Louisville, Ky., trails Yum Brands' Pizza Hut and Domino's in the pizza-delivery sector and has a much smaller ad budget than its rivals. As a result, it has long had to rely on stunts and new technology in its marketing. It was the first of the three to introduce online ordering in 2001 Pizza Hut and Domino's only rolled out the service nationwide this past summer and some 20 percent of Papa John's orders now come via the Web.
In 2005, Papa John's launched a successful stealth attack on Domino's during an episode of "The Apprentice." Domino's had the rights to be the exclusive pizza advertiser nationally on the broadcast. Papa John's made an end run by buying ad time in local markets during the show that promoted a meatball pizza, a similar product to the one featured on "The Apprentice." It was a public-relations coup for Papa John's, attracting next-day coverage in dozens of newspapers around the country.
"We are smaller. We have to be more nimble," says Jim Ensign, vice president of marketing communications for Papa John's.
The marketing battle among national pizza chains has heated up as growth in the category has slowed. Pizza sales in the U.S. grew only 2.9 percent last year to $28.5 billion, according to Technomic, a restaurant-industry consultant based in Chicago. Pizza Hut had 18 percent of the market last year, while Domino's had 11 percent; Papa John's had 6.9 percent.
All three chains now allow some form of ordering through their Web sites, and that part of the business is growing faster than any other channel. In October, Pizza Hut drew 3.1 million unique U.S. visitors to its site, up 77 percent from the year-earlier period, according to comScore Media Metrix. Papa John's drew 1.7 million unique U.S. visitors, an increase of 65 percent. Domino's also had 1.7 million unique visitors, a rise of 139 percent.
While Papa John's is among the first large national restaurant chains to introduce text-message ordering, its rivals are also experimenting with ordering food through mobile devices. In September, Domino's made it possible to order food at more than half of its U.S. stores from a Web-enabled mobile device. The system is similar to ordering via the Web, but the site was designed for a small screen.
"Mobile ordering is a richer experience than text ordering," says Jim Vitek, director of emerging technologies for Domino's Pizza. Domino's says it is too early to report back any numbers from the service.
Advertisers say that despite the hype of cellphone advertising, they are leery of wallpapering a person's phone with ads. Instead, they are more likely to engage in programs, like the text-message ordering, that offer customers some sort of service or benefit.
"Advertisers are being careful to not spam people," says Neil Strother, a mobile-marketing analyst with Jupiter Research. "They want to be welcome on the phone. Most of the businesses do not want a repeat of the early days of online advertising, when people got spammed with their emails or ads that were just really annoying."
Papa John's currently does very little advertising on mobile devices, and says it only plans to send messages to customers if they opt in to receive them. The company says more than a million consumers have already opted in to receive messages from Papa John's via email.
The company plans a marketing barrage to promote the new service. Among those efforts, on Thursday it is sponsoring a contest at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, where the "world's fastest talker" will be pitted against the "world's fastest texter" to see who can order a pizza in the shortest amount of time.