Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dipped in Gold

Who knew a 23-cent pizza could cost so much?

When LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers complained about "hard fouls" during a playoff series against the Washington Wizards, a Papa John's pizza franchise in D.C. responded by marketing T-shirts with the word "CRYBABY" over James' jersey number, 23. The shirt was a hit with Wizards fans, but Cavaliers fans were not amused. Amid angry complaints, as well as the realization that Papa John's has a large number of stores in the Cleveland area, the pizza company decided to make it up by offering large, one-topping pizzas for $0.23. It will also donate $10,000.00 to the Cavaliers Youth Fund.

The amazing thing about this whole affair is not the large amount of money Papa John's is losing by giving away cash and virtually free pizzas. What is amazing is the incredible cost Papa John's customers are prepared not only to absorb but to disregard almost completely in order to get something they neither needed nor probably even wanted only a few days ago. Consider what a $0.23 pizza has cost:

-- Hours of waiting in line. People wrapped up in blankets in Cleveland to wait in a line that wound through the parking lot and across a lawn; lines in University Heights were two blocks long. One guy waited nearly four hours for a pepperoni pizza. Time spent waiting in line is a cost; in order to devote time to waiting in line, it is necessary to sacrifice some other and probably more worthwhile activity.

-- Ill will. People got into arguments about cutting in line. Ill will is costly as an emotional and physical drain; it is also costly in the erosion of good will, and its replacement by an increase in cynicism. As the next point demonstrates, the containment of ill will is a drain on the resources of society.

-- Police intervention. In University Heights and Springfield township near Akron, police had to intervene in line-cutting incidents. One regional manager felt obliged to called the police to help close his stores in Columbus. All of this is on the dime of the thousands of customers waiting in line for their "23-cent" pizzas.

Admittedly, not everybody put up with all this purely for the purpose of getting a virtually free pizza. Some customers did it to defend LeBron James. "I did it for the principle of it, said Jennie Moore (no relation) of University Heights. "The principle of it is he's not a crybaby and Papa John's should not have gotten into it." It is one hell of an expensive principle.

Then there are those who are just plain clueless. "It's worth it,"declared Patrick Mone of Westlake. "All the money is going to charity, and obviously, it's bringing new business to Papa John's. Even though there is a line, I think it's pretty cool ... 23 cents, you can't beat it." Where the "new business" is actually a drain on Papa John's resources, and people are going to such excruciating lengths to get a 23-cent pizza they never knew they wanted before, this is on the order of spending a thousand dollars on lottery tickets and then crowing over winning a hundred bucks.

The most valuable service Papa John's has rendered in this whole business is not providing the hungry with all-but-free pizza, but demonstrating clearly and concretely that there really -- and literally -- is no such thing as a free lunch.

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