-- Dawn Pabst hates the wait for a pizza delivery. So after she orders a pepperoni pizza from the Domino's website, she never waits.
The Air Force technician from Las Vegas tracks the second-by-second status of her pizza via colorful, thermometer-like gauges at Dominos.com. She's one of millions of customers who monitor everything from order accuracy to the moment their pizza is prepped, baked, boxed or sent for delivery. Pabst says she even tracks the name of the person who bakes her pizza.
"I've never been known to be the most patient person in the world," says Pabst, who has used Domino's Pizza Tracker six times over the past four months. "It's nice to be able to call back and say, 'So-and-so made my pizza, and it's all messed up.' "
America is becoming a nation of track-a-holics. We want to go online and track the whereabouts of everything we order — or do. It's sometimes because we need to know, but often it's simply because we want to know.
Marketers are keenly hip to this growing consumer demand. In the early days of online package tracking, UPS had just 100,000 online tracking requests in December 1995. By last December, that number was 27.3 million requests a day.
And they know that the marketers that track best, win.
"Data is money," says Patricia Martin, author of Renaissance Generation: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer and What It Means to Your Business. "The more information you have, the more interesting you are."
That's why Domino's rolled out Pizza Tracker last year. It's why UPS and FedEx will send constant updates to consumers who want to know the whereabouts of their packages. Website FlightAware lets folks track the status of virtually any domestic flight. The Chicago Transit Authority Bus Tracker online system lets commuters track the whereabouts of their buses. New York City has Stimulus Tracker, which lets folks track where its stimulus funds are being spent. There's even a website that helps parents track — from a distance — their infant's sleeping, eating and, yes, pooping patterns.
In the end, this national obsession with tracking may be about consumers wanting some sense — real or perceived — of control. "I'd much rather know if I'm secure in my job," says Barry Glassner, sociology professor at University of Southern California. "But if I can't know that, at least I can know the status of my pizza."
The relentless consumer need to track is really about how valuable our time has become, says Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist. But, he warns, 24/7 tracking "fits us with a harness that some may resent. Someone is obliged to feed us perfect information and delivery time, and we're obliged to do the same."
McCracken admits to being a track-a-holic. After recently ordering a Lenovo ThinkPad from overseas, he closely tracked — via a UPS site — the route that his computer took from China to Hong Kong to Alaska to Memphis to his home in Connecticut. Sure, he was eager to get the new computer, which he was going to use to plan a new project, but equally important: "It was fun to watch it move through virtual space."
For Domino's, the tracker is more than a marketing tool. Even as it gives consumers a window into the status of their pizzas, it gives Domino's a window into the online world of its customers.
"Americans love knowing where their things are," says Chris McGlothlin, chief information office at Domino's. Folks constantly tell Domino's how much they hate not knowing when — or if — their pizza will arrive. The Pizza Tracker, used by 75% of Domino's online customers, is an attempt to solve that problem. While current technology also could track the whereabouts of drivers, Domino's won't track that for security reasons.
Besides connecting consumers to their pizzas, the tracker gives the first names of workers who make and deliver their order, says Russell Weiner, chief marketing officer. As a society, "We're not just time-starved, we're starved for connections to others."
Among the things we devote huge chunks of time tracking:
Tracking is a core function for FedEx. Its site, FedEx.com, gets 6 million package-tracking requests daily, says Mark Colombo, senior vice president of digital access marketing.
"Tracking is one of our top drivers for customer satisfaction," Colombo says. "People are obsessed with it."
Also, pay for many of the 100 top executives at FedEx is directly measured against the company's success in delivering packages on time.
The only way to measure that is, of course, to track it.
So it should be no surprise that FedEx has 14 tracking "events" for the average package, from pickup to when it gets on the plane to when it's on a local truck to delivery.
Consumers can choose to be notified of any of these handoffs. But the one requested most often — to follow the driver who brings the package to their home — they're not allowed to see.
"They'd love to watch the exact truck or plane that's carrying their package," Colombo says. While FedEx has the technology to do that, it won't take the step for security reasons, he says.
Over at rival UPS, tracking also is relentless. It keeps track of each time a package is touched by a handler — and offers that data to curious customers.
It handles about 23 million tracking requests a day at UPS.com for the 15 million packages it delivers each day, says Dave Barnes, chief information officer. In other words, the average package is tracked about 1½ times.
The fastest-growing part of tracking at UPS is mobile tracking via smartphones, Barnes says. BlackBerry owners can receive e-mail updates on packages.
In Europe, UPS lets customers download widgets to their desktops so they can track packages without even going to the UPS website. That easy ability to track is coming to the U.S., too, though Barnes doesn't know when.
Some folks are big trackers of flights. That's why Daniel Baker started FlightAware in 2005. It's a free service that receives FAA information and converts it into maps that track almost all non-military flights in the USA and Canada. That's about 50,000 flights a day.
The service receives 100 million flight-tracking requests a month, CEO Baker says. Spouses often use it to track the status of flights of their husbands or wives. Some folks use it to track packages. "But there are tons of people who are just tracking to track," says Baker. He says that's about 20% of his site's business.
Last year, the Chicago Transit Authority began to roll out a Bus Tracker that lets riders go online and track what time their bus will arrive.
The CTA's slogan for the new service: "The wait is over."
Well, not always. The site, www.ctabustracker.com, which is refreshed every few minutes, gives estimated arrival time based on traffic, scheduling and GPS systems on most of the city's 2,000 buses. Sometimes it's a bit off, but more often, it's on target, says Noelle Gaffney, a spokeswoman for CTA.
The site is averaging 27,600 visitors a day. It's just rolling out a new service: bus information via text messages on cellphones. Folks who text the numbers of a bus and bus stop will get back the approximate arrival time.
"This takes uncertainty out of the equation," Gaffney says. "Just knowing that your bus is coming in 15 minutes gives you a sense of control."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made millions tracking data, is giving New Yorkers the chance to track city agency performance at www.nyc.gov/cpr. The website includes 550 data points that residents can track — from the response time of the local fire department to how quickly potholes are filled.
It also now is tracking spending of the $5 billion in federal stimulus money the city is receiving, at www.nyc.gov/stimulustracker.
Folks can track everything from the $47.2 million allocated for a Brooklyn Bridge rehab project to the $290,000 being spent on elevator repair at Bedford-Stuyvesant public housing.
"People are surprised this data exists," says Jeffrey Kay, director of operations for the mayor. "Data adds transparency, and transparency is good in government."
Web designer Ben MacNeill became a stay-at-home dad after his daughter, Trixie, was born six years ago. To help his working wife, Jennifer Egan, keep tabs on their daughter, he began to chart Trixie's daily diaperings, feedings and sleep patterns, which at first seemed random.
"I discovered immediate trends after five days," MacNeill says. He figured most sleep-deprived parents weren't much good at calculating trends with their newborns. So he developed software that converts daily input into formatted charts, which his wife, a pathologist, could view at any time from work.
Then he started charging others $8 a month for the real-time service at his website, Trixie Tracker (trixietracker.com). He's attracted about 7,000 customers.
One is Tracy May, a 33-year-old full-time mom from Lombard, Ill., who started tracking the habits of her 8-month-old daughter, Abby, days after she was born.
Abby wasn't a great eater or sleeper. So May tracked her habits "for my own peace of mind." Now, she says, "I've become addicted to tracking her. My friends think it's a little excessive."
May says she became a compulsive tracker at the non-profit she formerly worked for, where everything is results-oriented.
If nothing else, she says, tracking Abby's sleep, feedings and diaper changes has accomplished one very important thing. "It keeps me off of Facebook."