Seven businesses in Augusta and Aiken recently signed on to a telephone ordering system designed to boost sales through added customer convenience.
One expert on electronic commerce, though, said the system attempts to buck the global trend of increased use of the Internet in place of telephones.
TeleQuest Corp., formerly known as DART Inc., announced this week it is beginning to connect its subscribers in the Augusta-Aiken market to these vendors. The new vendors include Domino's Pizza, Steak Out, Martina's Florist and Gifts, Willie's Car Care, DryClean 249, Barney's Pharmacy and Family Pharmacy.
"What we are to the vendor is a way to win new customers, a new marketing chanel," said Tucker Eskew, TeleQuest's executive vice president of marketing and sales.
For $7.95 per month, customers get a unique checking-account debit card and a phone to read it. To order a pizza, a customer would press the phone's speed-dial number for pizza, listen for instructions from a computer in Columbia, S.C., to "swipe" his or her card through the machine, then wait as the call is transferred to the pizza parlor at which an order would be placed.
TeleQuest then debits the checking account for the price of the purchase and sends a check to the vendor, minus a commission.
Mr. Eskew wouldn't reveal the actual number of subscribers beyond saying "thousands and thousands" in 15 Southeastern states. "We are already in discussion with some very large national vendors. So we expect to be making some more news about our new partners soon," he said.
But enhancing telephones may be like building an electronic buggy whip rather than making an automobile.
"Why is it better than the normal way you would order pizza?" asked electronic commerce expert Joyce Flory, author of The Online Business Atlas.
"It doesn't seem to be in the direction things are headed," the Chicago author said. Most companies are replacing their current phone ordering system with Internet connections.
Mr. Eskew said TeleQuest is faster than booting up a computer and safer than typing personal financial information into cyberspace.
For vendors, the service could be a way to keep their name on one of the special phone's 24 speed-dial buttons.
"I was hoping that it would draw some more customers," said Willie Bush, manager of Willie's Car Care in Aiken.
John Partridge, president of Martina's Florist in Augusta, said he already has many out-of-town customers but hopes the toll-free number on TeleQuest will add to them.
"I don't know what to expect. It's so new for us," he said.