So long, supermarket!

Summary:It's not every day that I receive a Federal Express box jam-packed with StarKist tuna, Mueller's spaghetti, and Carolina rice, but as I unwrapped my first shipment from NetGrocer it struck me that the 21st century has the potential to be very different from the 20th. Grocery shopping via the Internet may seem silly at first.

It's not every day that I receive a Federal Express box jam-packed with StarKist tuna, Mueller's spaghetti, and Carolina rice, but as I unwrapped my first shipment from NetGrocer it struck me that the 21st century has the potential to be very different from the 20th.

Grocery shopping via the Internet may seem silly at first. These days, we Americans have big minivans or sports utility vehicles, and our super-mega-market or discount warehouse price club is just a ten-minute drive away. We push our oversize shopping carts down wide, air-conditioned aisles and bask in the abundance of our great nation. Look at all those brands of breakfast cereal. It's a great time to be alive.

But wait. Some of us don't have cars. Some of us live in cities with dank, dirty markets where you turn a corner only to spot a bum eating Oreos right off the shelf. Some of us feel like we're just too busy to push a cart through a market. And some of us are looking for ways to integrate the Web into our lives in truly useful ways.

Enter online groceries. NetGrocer can't replace a trip to a well-stocked supermarket. It sells no perishables, and its selection, while diverse, is far from comprehensive. The best way to use it is to compile shopping lists of the things you know you buy every month and then just hit one button to have the same order delivered on a recurring basis. Paper towels, toothpaste, diapers, pasta, cat food, cans of soup, that sort of thing. When you go to the supermarket, you're freed up to concentrate on the fresh stuff. Think of NetGrocer as an automatic pantry restocker.

And the prices? Well, I live in New York City, where everything is more expensive, but overall, they seem fair, though probably not competitive with the jumbo sizes you can buy at the big warehouse stores. My $80 load of online groceries wouldn't have been any cheaper if I had rung it up at the supermarket.

Shipping? It's all handled by Federal Express, and NetGrocer must have struck quite a deal, because it's very cheap. In fact, it's only $2.99 for the first 10 pounds and 99 cents for each additional 10 pounds. Spend $75 and it's free (for an unspecified limited time). My groceries arrived from Texas six days after I ordered them, and I was able to track their progress via Federal Express's online package tracking system.

I have to admit that while unpacking my heavy boxes of groceries, I started to laugh at the sheer weirdness of it all. Imagine: bags of rice air-shipped from Texas to my door in New York. And NetGrocer went to great pains to pack everything with diligence. The tuna cans were protected by layer after layer of protective styrofoam packing. There was certainly no danger of anything arriving with a dent in it. My order even came with a note saying it had been packed with care by Carlos. I guess NetGrocer feels it's important to give the whole process a human touch--albeit not much of one.

An interesting alternative is Peapod, which takes a more immediate and local approach. By affiliating with local supermarkets, Peapod lets you order anything, including perishables, and it gives you only an estimate of what the final total will be because it doesn't guarantee that everything you order will be available. Your groceries are delivered by a Peapod representative much sooner than they are with NetGrocer, so the whole process is more complete and personal. More expensive, too. To use Peapod, you have to get a membership for $4.95, and delivery is usually $4.95 plus 5 percent of the order total.

Peapod also offers less expensive drive-up service at some affiliated markets, so you can save the time of actually going into the store, but not the time of driving there. Currently, Peapod is set up in just nine cities (Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, and San Francisco/San Jose), but more are on the way.

Will services like these flourish online? I don't see why not. There are always going to be consumers looking for any possible way to save time and willing to pay for convenience. If it can be this cheap and this easy, it's got to work.

Talk back to Don. E-mail him at: don_willmott@zd.com

Topics: Tech Industry

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