Ordering pizza over the Internet is clearly cool, but pizza companies and customer service experts say that's not why a growing number of patrons are turning to computer-mediated ordering. The draw, they say, is customers love the fact that they're in charge of the transaction from beginning to end.

"Customers like to control the experience, and there's a lot of research that says people feel better when they're in control of a situation," said Janelle Barlow, president of Branded Service, a Las Vegas-based customer service consultancy, and coauthor of "Branded Customer Service, The New Competitive Edge." "I think there is something that frees people up when they're ordering online. There's no pressure. It happens at the customer's pace."

Americans' love of self-service experiences fascinates Paul Kowal, because research he reads

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runs counter to people's outward desire to be pampered. We say we want things done for us, he said, but we live oppositely.

"They said ATMs would never make it because nobody would want to go to a machine to get their money when a nice, smiling person at the teller's window was there to say, 'Hi,' and hand you the bills you wanted," said Kowal, also a customer service expert and president of Kowal & Associates, a consultancy firm in Boston. "But the fact is everybody wanted to work with the ATMs. That desire for self-service has carried far forward. We invented the salad bar and pump-your-own gas. And there are still so many places where we want to serve ourselves in ways businesses don't even yet recognize."

Don't count Papa John's or LaRosa's Pizza among that group. Both chains have recognized customers' desire for online ordering, and they're reaping the benefits of significant investments in Internet ordering systems. Traffic drawn to those options is impressive and growing steadily, and LaRosa's has nearly achieved its goal of having 10 percent of all orders come through the Internet.

Papa John's is the only foodservice company in the U.S. to offer online ordering at all its stores nationwide, while LaRosa's offers it in Cincinnati only, where it is headquartered and has more than 50 units.

According to Jim Ensign, vice president of marketing communications at Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John's, the company recently surveyed 8,000 users of its online ordering service and found that, just as Kowal and Barlow said, customers prefer to use Internet ordering because they're in complete control. They can take all the time they need to place an order, change selections as many times as they want, choose to pay with a credit card online or with cash when the order is delivered, and they never feel rushed by a busy CSR juggling multiple phone calls.

"We found that 86 percent of our heavy users said ordering online is more convenient and easy than ordering on the phone," said Ensign. "Well, we thought the phone was pretty easy, so we tried to dig down and learn more about what that really meant."

What they discovered was 73 percent of Papa John's online customers said it meant they could linger over the menu as long as they liked, a wholly impractical option with phone ordering. Another 66 percent liked online ordering because they're never put on hold.

But perhaps most interesting was 61 percent of customers preferred the Internet to the phone because they're never rushed, while 62 percent said online ordering is faster than phone ordering.

"We were surprised to see customers view the same service two completely different ways," said Ensign. "But that proves how much this is about the customer's control of the experience. They're on their own time and they get to spend that time the way they want."

Both LaRosa's and Papa John's claim the most dramatic effects of online ordering are increased check averages and higher brand loyalty. According to a case study done by LaRosa's, the average check for delivery orders placed online is 50 cents higher than those placed over the phone, and pick-up orders placed

What's Important

Internet pizza ordering isn't just hip, it's successful because customers like the experience.

Research both inside and outside the pizza industry proves customers spend more when they order online.

Customers say the unhurried experience is their favorite part of online ordering.

online run $1.25 higher than online orders.

"In this industry, 50 more cents is a lot. People kill for a dime more!" Pete Buscani, LaRosa's executive vice president of marketing, said in the case study. "It made sense for us to try to push more orders online."

Ensign declined to say how much higher Papa John's online check average is, but he did say the company's certain that Internet users spend more because they have a greater amount of time to view the menu.

"They like seeing all the different beverages, crust options, dipping sauces, side items and desserts, things they might not be aware we had unless they'd gone to the restaurant," Ensign said. "They like the variety and like to experiment. When we introduced our new pan pizza, we saw a huge, huge trial of that online."

Special orders don't upset computers

Barlow said the privacy of shopping online allows customers freedom to order exactly what they want, a situation that can cause tension with human-to-human interaction, she said.

"If you're ordering a lot of fatty foods online, you don't feel any shame. And we've learned that customers will do an awful lot to avoid getting judged," she said. "And you're not pressured to hurry and order with the waiter standing over you. Even on the telephone you feel pressured to hurry up because you know they've got three other calls to answer."

Just like ordering on Amazon.com, Kowal said if the customer finds the total due for his order higher than he thought, or he's changed his mind about a product, he can remove it from the shopping cart at his whim.

"You're not going to be embarrassed like at the grocery store, where sometimes you see people having to put food back, and there's a person behind them tapping their foot," he said. Online ordering is relaxing, he added. "In so many instances when the world wants us to move more quickly, it's a luxury to go at your own pace. It's a treat to see what your options are, to look at things you've not considered trying before. It's hard to find that in person-to-person service."

A well-done Internet ordering site is highly personalized, Barlow said. It remembers customers' names, their preferences and even greets them upon login. Adding a personal touch optimizes the interaction between machine and man while removing the potential drawbacks of strictly human interaction.

"If you click on something you get all the time, a question could pop up, 'Would you like to try something different? Maybe an appetizer?'" she said. "You're building into the experience this personal conversation with the customer. So they get this feeling they talked with an old friend while online."

Read other stories about online ordering ...
* Time to order online
* LaRosa's Pizzeria hopes Web orders will claim 10% of all transactions
* Net Returns
* Time to be Online?
* Domino's Pizza Australia tests online ordering
* Papa John's and Blockbuster offer pizza-movie combo through online orders

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