Screen savings?

Putting the dot-com grocers to the test.

Apparently people who like grocery shopping exist. I am not one of them. I didn't enjoy the lines, label-reading, or lifting even before I had a child; now, going to the store is a race to see who will lose it first, my toddler or me, the mom desperately turning all the cucumbers over before the produce man sees the teeth marks.

This is all to say that I was delighted to discover that the Greater Seattle area now has three grocery delivery services. (A fourth service, San Francisco's Webvan.com, is planning to expand into this area soon.) Despite my rather extreme aversion to the Internet, I recently took all three for a trial run, with varying results.

Albertsons.com

Where's the "register here" button? Not on the home page—a problem that left this new customer scratching her head. Note to Joe: People come to this Web site to shop. Make it easy for them.

Just like with the other shopping services, you can order for delivery the next day, seven days a week, within 90-minute delivery windows. Albertsons also gives you the option of picking up your order. Delivery is free for orders of $60 or more; $5.95 if the tab is under $60. Frankly, I spent most of my time at Albertsons.com confused and frustrated. The thing kept asking me if I wanted a new list, and I had no idea what it meant. Shopping list? List of what was already in my cart? WHAT LIST? Plus, it took me ages to find "How to Shop." Another note to Joe: Why not post a "How to Use This Web Site" page right up front?

I need bananas. I type in "fruit" and up pops Arbor Mist Wine Exotic Fruits White Zinfandel, Scooby Doo Fruit Snacks, Tropical Fruit Punch Shampoo—but no bananas. Where's the fresh fruit? Back to the home page; OK, there's "shop by department." Aha! "Produce!" I'm delighted to find them billed as "green bananas," which is my favorite way to buy them, but it asks me how many I want. Would that be how many bunches, or how many individual bananas? Oh, dear. I order one.

I also need Kleenex—where do I go for that? Personal Care? Household? When I find it I realize I don't know my favorite Kleenex by name, I know it by sight. I schlep over to my Kleenex box and find it's called Kleenex Facial Tissue Family Size, Yellow. Brilliant! Here it is on-screen—but only in blue. That's another problem of current online grocers—a more limited range of stock than you'll find in the store.

I was never quite sure whether I was adding items to my shopping cart or to my list, so I felt compelled to call up my shopping cart after every purchase to make sure. This added significantly to the time it took to shop; can't they figure out a way to keep my running tab going along the side of the page?

Not until the end did I spy the "featured food of the month," a rather didactic little essay on cranberries. (Again, Joe, people are here to shop.) This reminded me that I needed some, but when I did a search I discovered that Albertsons.com did not carry cranberries. Hello?

On to "checkout." I chose my delivery time to coincide with my daughter's afternoon nap and requested in the "special instructions" field for the deliverer not to ring the doorbell. Damned if the nice delivery man didn't come at 9:15am and ring away. He apologized profusely when alerted to his mistake, and I was mollified when he brought the bags directly to my kitchen. Then I saw the produce—flawlessly fresh, from the heartbreakingly ripe honeydew melon to the firm, hydroponic tomatoes.

Fresh produce, much more perfect than I would have picked out for myself, was almost enough to compensate for the Kleenex, which turned out to be neither yellow nor blue, but pink. Pink.

Northwestgrocer.com

This site's opening page declared that Northwestgrocer.com delivers from Bellingham to Chehalis (specifying cities like Morton, Sedro Woolley, Fife, and the thriving metropolis of Mossyrock, along with many others), with no mention of, um, Seattle. I would have suffered serious confusion and bailed, but at 10pm my Web-geek husband who needed to know e-mailed the company. At midnight Northwestgrocer.com's CEO, David Sukola, e-mailed back. "Sure, we'll deliver to you," he wrote, as if he weren't the CEO of a company e-mailing some random customer at midnight but a neighbor doing a favor. His service, the cheapest of the three, was free for orders over $50; $5 for orders less than that.

And his page was laid out better than Albertsons.com's. There, in a frame along the left side, ran the list of shopping departments, making it painless to dart among virtual aisles; up top ran a notice every time you added something to your shopping cart. Nice.

Northwestgrocer.com has a few big problems, however. Unlike with the other two services, shoppers cannot click on item names to call up label information about them. Worse, shoppers who ought to be able to locate items either by searching or browsing are often shut out on the latter; crackers and cookies are sold on the site, but available under none of the department listings, including "packaged foods." So the shopper must do a search for "crackers," which yields all of four choices. If you want something besides Ritz, Cheese Nips, or Better Cheddars, you're out of luck. The site only sells four kinds of cookies. As for baby items, all they sell are fruit, vegetables, and cereal, no—gasp!--diapers.

In Northwestgrocer.com's defense, the "New Items" list is long and clearly trying to address the rather extreme inventory problem. But proceed to checkout and you'll discover an even bigger snag. You enter your name and address and VISA number—but the critical issue of delivery time is never broached. We ordered past the 2pm deadline for next-day delivery, so we knew not to expect anything then, but when the next day after that came and went with no groceries we began to wonder.

Did they really deliver to Seattle? Had our new friend David Sukola gotten stuck in traffic on his way to our house? OK, it's now three days later, and still no groceries. I'll let you know when they arrive. . . .

HomeGrocer.com

It's the one you've heard of, the one that started it all—and the one with far and away the best Web site. It's also the most expensive, where delivery is free only for orders of $75 or more; $9.95 otherwise.

Every button is where it intuitively ought to be—except for, once again, no "Register Here" up front—with lists of departments running along the left side, the contents of your shopping cart running along the right. When you log on, it immediately asks you to reserve your delivery time, a thoughtful touch from an increasingly busy company. It honors interruptions, even hanging on to your half-filled shopping cart from days before, and lets you edit the contents—even when already purchased—until 11pm the night before delivery.

HomeGrocer.com's service is simply more refined. The little identifying pictures alongside the item listings—helpful to first-timers like me, but time-consuming to download—can be removed with a single click. You see both unit prices and final prices when ordering. Category organization is smarter than at Albertsons.com; "fresh fruit" is one of the categories that pops up, whaddya know, when you click on "fruit."

And selection is broader. Want molasses? Would that be full-flavored, organic, or blackstrap? Delivery was splendidly uneventful, with our fresh-faced delivery man waiting patiently outside our house as we pulled up. He carried everything in—and such gorgeous produce! cantaloupes at their peak of ripeness! bananas just ripening out of the green! (with a little sticker on the banana bag saying "Due to the small size of this product you are receiving 2 for 1 at no extra charge. We hope this does not inconvenience you in any way"!)—including our gratis first-timer's bag of produce.

Prices

Who's cheapest? In a thoroughly unscientific comparison among Albertsons.com, HomeGrocer.com, and the bricks-and-mortar Safeway and QFC, the answer remains unclear. Each purveyor won at least once.

For 200 feet of Reynolds Wrap, I paid $6.79 at Homegrocer.com, $6.69 at the bricks-and-mortar QFC, $6.49 at bricks-and-mortar Safeway, and $5.59 at Albertsons.com. I bought a ripe, beautiful honeydew melon at QFC for $3.33, another of roughly the same quality and size at HomeGrocer.com for $2.99, another of roughly the same quality and size at Albertsons.com for $2.29, and another of infinitely inferior quality at Safeway for 50 cents. A pound of lean (16 percent fat) ground beef costs $2.39 at Safeway, $2.25 at Albertsons.com and HomeGrocer.com, and $1.79 at QFC. For a half-gallon of organic whole milk, I paid $2.99 at Albertsons.com and the same at QFC; 30 cents less than that at HomeGrocer.com and Safeway.

A pattern is difficult to detect, in other words, but HomeGrocer.com seems to win or tie a surprising amount of the time. Having now ordered three times from HomeGrocer.com—my favorite of the bunch— I feel qualified to pronounce the produce consistently flawless; as flawless as that first order from Albertsons.com, and certainly better than what one has to choose from at Safeway or even QFC. For my money, that's worth the delivery charge alone.

Oh, yeah, as for NorthwestGrocer.com: A further flurry of e-mails revealed that CEO David Sukola figured that our order was so small ($9) we must be planning to add to it, so he held off on delivery. (In fact, we would have ordered more if they actually had any of the stuff we were shopping for.) When asked whether he was ever planning to inform us of this decision, the company CFO Roxzan Sukola e-mailed back with an apology. Apology accepted. But readers may want to take note.

More:

• Grocery wars Besieged supermarkets battle obsolescence with brie. by Brian Miller

• Tofu tussle Green grocers battle for greenbacks. by Bob Geballe

• Paper or plastic? A guide to local grocers.

 
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