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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, C@LL CENTER CRM Solutions

[January 26, 2000]

Looking For A Better Fruit Cup, Online

I've spent a lot of time at the grocery store lately. There are two mega- supermarkets just down the street from our main offices here at TMC, but since I buy most other things online, I thought it was time to find out exactly what online grocery shopping was about. A recent column of mine was entitled "Downloading A Sweater" -- something I wish I was able to do via the Web. You can't download Campbell's chicken soup or Chips Ahoy, either. But you CAN do something pretty amazing, as I discovered.

Some services, like Webvan, allow you to shop online and slap your purchases on a credit card, at which time Webvan brings you your groceries. As you can imagine, this service is still highly regional. I use my own locale of Norwalk, Connecticut as a good yardstick -- it's not exactly a metropolis, granted, but it is only about fifty miles outside of Manhattan. I was told by the Webvan site that service is not available in my area. I hope this changes in the future, because as I write, it's about nine degrees Fahrenheit outside, and having someone bring Fruit Loops and a quart of milk right to my door is far too appealing to resist.

Most visible in the news lately is the grocery shopping arm of Priceline. I took a sample shopping trip through the site to discover exactly how it works. On the site, a series of food and grocery-related categories are listed. As a trial run, I picked "grape jelly." I was brought to a page which asked me to enter my preferred two brands (I was given a choice of three: Polaner, Smucker's or Welch's). Then, a subhead called "Name Your Price!" asked me what I'd like to pay for the jelly. According to this function, grape jelly typically retails for $1.69 to $1.89 per 18 ounce jar. I was told that if I checked the box that indicated I'd be willing to pay $1.50 for a jar through Priceline, I had a "great chance" of getting my price, and that this was still 85 percent lower than the average retail at the average grocery store. The less I was willing to pay (the list took me down to $1.23 per jar), the lower my chance of my purchase offer being accepted. I would then be asked to indicate how many jars I wanted.

When I was done with grape jelly, I would proceed to other product categories and finish the rest of my shopping. When I progress to checkout, the site will inform me which of my price offers have been accepted and which have not. I can then re-negotiate those that were not accepted. When all my prices are accepted and my transaction is finished, my credit card information will be collected by Priceline and I'll print out a prepaid grocery list. Then I just bring the list down to the Super Stop & Shop (which is a participating supermarket). Items that were purchased on Priceline must be kept separate from any other incidental purchases I make at the store. Priceline is different from these other online grocers in that you still need to go to the store to pick up your goods -- the benefit here is cost savings, not necessarily convenience.

Priceline's well-ordered site brings on its heavy marketing guns, as a current feature of the home page is a special reminder to buy Super Bowl snacks. Of course, there are plentiful links to products such as pretzels, salsa, soft drinks and frozen pizza. (But you'll still have to get your beer on your own!)

Priceline's online grocery shopping currently works in conjunction with a variety of supermarkets in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Philadelphia metro areas. Beginning in February 2000, the service will be available to shoppers in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Boston; and beginning in March 2000, service will expand further into Detroit and Milwaukee.

I initially laughed at the concept of online grocery shopping. However, I discovered that Priceline just last week sold its two-millionth grocery item. Its success has begun to spur on an explosive number of Web-based grocery sites.

Grocer Online, based in Englewood, Colorado, allows you to select products, put them in your virtual shopping cart and check out. Grocer Online then ships your products to you via Federal Express or UPS. Time to delivery is based on which geographic zone you're in. Meat and other perishable products are packed in dry ice for shipping.

Priceline, Webvan and Grocer Online are far from the only players. Smaller, more regional companies are blossoming throughout the country. Southern California and the Bay Area can order groceries off eGrocer.com and the Detroit metro area can use Groceries Express.

Specialty food online food stores are beginning to crop up, as well. You can buy Thai specialties online at www.thaigrocer.com, Latin-oriented groceries at www.latingrocer.com and Kosher foods at www.koshersupermarket.com.

So, on to my virtual fruit cup shopping. Unfortunately, online grocery purchasing will never change the fact that you only ever get one cherry per can. Some things never change.

Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at troth@tmcnet.com.

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