Online Ordering

Maybe you remember the early days of pizza delivery. Did you think it would take off, or were you convinced that it was a flash-in-the-pan novelty? You may recall that delivery was a struggle in the beginning—until someone came along and showed how to do it properly in order to turn a profit.

The same can be said for online ordering today. When the option first started becoming popular around the turn of the millennium, operators were ecstatic when they made a few hundred dollars in online sales; no one imagined they’d hit the $1 billion mark. But Papa John’s, taking a leap of faith, introduced online ordering in all of its stores nationwide in 2001, and showed what could be done with a little optimistic determination.

We spoke to Jim Ensign, VP of marketing communications at Papa John’s, to get the inside scoop on the company’s secret to online success—a success that has seen online sales grow by more than 50% each year, with last year’s U.S. online sales approaching $400 million and the company reporting that more than 20% of its sales come from either online or text ordering.

PMQ: When did Papa John’s begin offering online ordering, and did it take off right away?

Ensign: After testing for a bit, we decided to roll it out in all of our stores in 2001. We slowly ramped up the marketing, because we didn’t have the budget needed in the beginning and we wanted to see its benefits before putting a lot of money into it. We always want the focus to be on our customers’ experience, and we wanted to make sure that online ordering was right for our customers; we didn’t want to rush it just so we could say that we were the first, although we still ended up being the first to offer online ordering in all of our restaurants. Once we were sure it was the right direction to go in, we began our marketing efforts around 2003 and really put a strong effort behind it starting in 2005; that’s when things took off for us.

Many pizzeria operators are still hesitant about offering online ordering. How did you feel about it before you began offering online ordering, and what was the deciding factor that made you go for it?

We’re a big system, and before we do anything we always ask ourselves, “Is this the best thing for our customer?” There was a time when some members of Papa John’s corporate wanted to pull the plug on online ordering, but a number of our franchisees were insistent on keeping it going. They were convinced that online ordering would make a difference with their businesses and the industry, and we trusted their opinions.

Being the first pizza chain to reach $1 billion in online orders, Papa John’s is obviously doing something right. Can you tell us about how you market online ordering to the public?

We always market to our current customers first through direct mail, packaging, box tops, email and online offers, etc. We also do TV and print advertising, run contests and sweepstakes, utilize online advertising, run promotions alongside sporting events such as March Madness, and even have widgets that consumers can download onto their desktops so Papa John’s is always in front of them. One other thing we did, beginning two years ago, was become the title sponsor of the PapaJohns.com Bowl on ESPN, which is a Division I college football bowl game—this was a great way to increase awareness of our online ordering. It’s important to keep reminding people about online ordering, because it doesn’t always click until someone has seen it numerous times.
Is your online customer different than your phone customer?

Not as different as we had anticipated. We were surprised at how similar they are. They reflect a demographic that’s 50-50 male-female, 25 to 49 years old, and many are families. It showed us that online ordering is convenient for a variety of people. The only real difference we find between the online customer and the phone customer is in behavior. People tend to order more items and spend more money when they’re online. They’re able to view all of our specialty pizzas, desserts and side items, and we’re able to tailor their online experience. Are there parts of the country that show higher online sales? There are always going to be parts of the country that are stronger, and they are the ones you’d expect: the West Coast; Austin, TX; Washington; Raleigh, NC; etc. But online ordering is pretty relevant everywhere and follows the pattern of online usage. There really aren’t any black holes out there where online ordering isn’t catching on. Plus, if there were, text and mobile ordering make up for those.

To learn more, check out the June/July issue.