Thousands of hungry consumers had a virtual window through which to gaze at their Domino's "pies" in progress on a recent Sunday, thanks to the takeout-and-delivery chain's new Pizza Tracker technology, which now supports about 3,200 U.S. restaurants.
"We were happy to help over 20,000 customers track the status of their pizzas on Super Bowl Sunday," said Jim Vitek, director of emerging technology for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza Inc. DPI operates or franchises to others about 5,000 restaurants in the United States and another 3,500 overseas.
Vitek recently told me about some of the technology behind Pizza Tracker, a Web-based service — accessible at www.dominos.com — unveiled in January that amounts to the latest salvo in the intensifying "get the geeks" battle among pizza's Big 3.
Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's Pizza launched the marketing-and-technology tussle sometime back by targeting the online crowd, but they recently began wooing the cell phone and PDA sets. Domino's, for its part, now appears ready to layer on some razzle-dazzle.
Make no mistake about it: the competition between these chains for share of mind and stomach among pizza eaters is a high-stakes affair. The trio generates aggregate annual U.S. sales of better than $10 billion.
Pizza Tracker permits online and phone customers of participating Domino's units to use the Internet to watch their orders move through the production system. The lag time between actual order progress and what Pizza Tracker users see will be no greater than 40 seconds, the chain said. It added that users also can communicate with the stores preparing their orders by typing messages on their computer keyboards.
"At Domino's we're obsessed with great service. We measure performance. Now we can prove it every step of the way," said Chris McGlothlin, the chain's chief information officer. "Pizza Tracker will allow customers to know when their order is being prepared, when it's out of the oven and when it's out the door and on its way ... [and] it's entertaining, too."
The Pizza Tracker tool, which even tells users the first names of their delivery drivers, will be added to other stores, Domino's sources said. They noted that Pizza Tracker works only with stores using Domino's' propietary Pulse point-of-sale and back-office-management system.
Pulse has been controversial within the Domino's system.
Previously, multiple franchisees sued Domino's to block its attempt to force its proprietary technology on licensees. Domino's had maintained that Pulse was the only system that met its technology specifications. But some franchisees argued that, according to franchise agreements, Domino's could mandate technology specifications, but could not require the purchase of an entire system from a specific vendor.
In a ruling last May, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota sided with the plaintiff franchisees. It said that the franchise agreement in place permitted franchisees to source systems meeting franchisor-set specifications as they wished.
Moving ahead, the franchisor appears determined to demonstrate the strengths of its Pulse technology in use by two-third of the U.S. system.
"Domino's Pulse and broadband connectivity were the only prerequisites for [stores to participate in] Pizza Tracker," Vitek of Domino's said. "There were some small components that needed to run in stores to support Pizza Tracker, but those were electronically deployed [across the network] and didn't require any store or franchisee intervention."
In fact, Vitek added, the startup required so little field-level involvement that operators who "missed our internal Pizza Tracker announcement didn't realize it was enabled at their stores."
Vitek said Pizza Tracker was developed internally using Microsoft Active Server Pages, or ASP, Java and Flash. He said Pizza Tracker itself is a small footprint Flash application that, after loading on consumers' systems, periodically communicates with the chain's public Web servers, which, in turn, talk with Pulse over a secure virtual private network.
One might wonder if all that consumer peeking and peering at order progress might not slow down the online ordering machine Domino's has crafted to be as efficient as possible. "No, it's been fine," Vitek said of order processing speeds, before he added, "The [Pizza Tracker] architecture was designed to prevent excessive or abusive users from negatively impacting core functions."
Pizza Tracker's graphical user interface was designed by Domino's advertising agency, Crispin Porter + Bugusky.
Though reticent to share details, Vitek acknowledged "there is a patent pending on the 'secret sauce' behind Pizza Tracker." Domino's now can "rapidly deploy cool things like Pizza Tracker," and that, he maintained, makes the chain an "unpredictably potent competitor."
Click here for a screen shot of the Pizza Tracker program recently launched by Domino's Pizza to let their Internet using guests watch orders in production.