What's in a name?
Record sales and profits, according to Vocelli Pizza franchisee Randy Fox.
Fox had been a Pizza Outlet franchisee for seven years until the 107-store Pittsburgh-based chain launched a re-imaging test in February 2002. Using what then was Fox's one store in Reston, Va., the company changed every branded aspect of the unit, both inside and out, and opened its first Vocelli Pizza store.
From the start, Fox said, customers came in droves, and haven't stopped coming since.
"The response was far and above any response we could ever have imagined," said Fox. "Within the first couple of weeks our sales were up probably 50 to 60 percent. What was funny was customers told us the pizza was so much better than Pizza Outlet's pizza, but we hadn't changed a thing."
Fox's bottom line changed dramatically, however. His $7,000-per-week store saw sales double in the first six months. Ten months into the image change, the store averaged $18,000 a week, about its current average. The income from that store allowed him to open a second Vocelli site in nearby Herndon, Va., a few months ago.
"We never expected to jump in sales that fast," said Fox. "Now my Reston store makes more profit in one month than it used to in a whole year."
A change will do you good
Varol Ablak, co-founder, CEO and president of Pizza Outlet ... er, um, Vocelli Pizza, couldn't be
more pleased with the outcome of the re-imaging campaign announced officially two weeks ago. All of the chain's stores have undergone or eventually will undergo signage, exterior and interior overhauls to reflect the Vocelli brand and image.
The decision to transform Pizza Outlet into Vocelli, however, didn't come quickly or easily.
"This all started about five years ago," said Ablak. "That was the first time our ad agency asked us what we wanted to do with the concept long-term. We said our goal was to take it worldwide.
"But they said our name was weak, that it didn't communicate what the product is about. And that if we wanted to stay a regional player, we should keep it as it is. But if we wanted to (meet our goal), then something had to change."
When the first Pizza Outlet opened in 1988, Ablak believed the brand name spoke of fresh products customers could get quickly. Pittsburgh's blue-collar customer based agreed, and the company grew quickly and steadily throughout Pennsylvania.
However, in the late '90s, when Ablak's brother Sechen, started opening stores in Northern Virginia's Fairfax County -- the country's wealthiest county per capita -- Pizza Outlet became a pizza outcast. Not only was the trading area dominated by well-run Domino's Pizza and Papa John's stores, locals sensed the Pizza Outlet name meant factory-made rather than fresh-made.
Fox said not only were his store sales an unimpressive $7,000 per week, "there were others that were doing even worse."
Ablak and his company officers were at a crossroads. The results of a large survey of Pizza Outlet customers only reinforced the ad agency's recommendations: change the chain's name to fit the product, or change the product
"That alone took about two-and-a-half years," said Ablak. "And after that, it took six more months to get a logo. ... It all took a tremendous amount of research and reading."
In the end, the company settled on Vocelli Pizza, an Italian-sounding name it believed would better reflect its high-quality pizza.
The company then got to work turning Pizza Outlet's somewhat bland maroon-and-white-colored stores into shops that effused a more Italian feel. Units would be brightened up with green, red and tan accompaniments, tile floors, new signage, boxes and uniforms.
Fox said changes to signage, hot bags and boxes alone cost him $12,000.
Ablak said Vocelli's investment -- so far -- which includes re-imaging all the company's proprietary products and remodeling its 33 corporate stores, is about $1 million.
Jim Powers, Vocelli's vice president of marketing, said coordinating the timing of the myriad changes was all-consuming.
"I wished it was easy as hanging a new sign," said Powers. "Just changing internal packaging -- the labels on those cans and boxes and such that get sent directly to our stores -- amounted to more than 50 different deadlines. It's a major effort to do something like this."
Sign of change
The updated Vocelli Pizza signs are on all the company's stores, but less than 40 percent of the chain's units have been remodeled inside. Franchise stores will be updated more gradually, though that's not due to franchisee resistance, Ablak said. Once company officials "sat down and explained the need to change, that what we were doing would move the company forward, everybody understood it was the right thing to do."
Not only are current franchisees impressed by the strong results posted by stores in Virginia, new franchisees are lining up to get a piece of the action.
"We have 35 stores sold now and that are ready to be opened in the next year and half," said Ablak. "We've sold the rights to develop 11 stores in Boca Raton (Fla.), the rights to develop 10 stores in Atlanta, and the rights to develop the rest of the Washington, D.C. market."
Now that the hard work is done, Powers said a new duty of his will be to monitor the results of the change. He said that changing names in Virginia, where Pizza Outlet wasn't well established, was one thing, but doing so in Pennsylvania, home to more than half of the chain's system, is quite another.
"We need to communicate that change to a lot more people a lot more times" in Pennsylvania, Powers said. "The reach and frequency of advertising needs to be higher and more detailed than in the North Virginia market to make an impact.
"Still, we're seeing 40-plus-percent comparable store sales increases almost overnight with the conversion. So it's safe to say we're extremely pleased."