Grocery Shopping: More Than a Mundane Chore

Jim's heard you loud and clear: You actually <I>like</I> to go to the grocery store.
Author:
Publish date:

OK, already. So some of you like grocery shopping -- a lot, if not necessarily for the selection of vegetables, seafood and tofu.

"Look," a number of

TSC

readers wrote in response to my column on

Web grocers -- and I paraphrase -- "don't you understand the key role of grocery stores, health clubs and launderettes in meeting women?" Umm, well, obviously not. I'll have to check with my wife on that.

But for whatever motives, a fair number of

TSC

readers don't want online grocery shopping; they want to troll the aisles at the SuperSooper in a kind of random-walk socialization/mating process.

Fine by me.

The mailbox filled up fast on this one. I received well over a hundred reader mails in the first 24 hours after the column appeared, more than twice that many within a week. They contained a lot of good ideas -- and a lot of skepticism.

A large group of readers pushed a great idea. (Are you listening in Bentonville?)

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

, either under its own name or through its

Sam's Warehouse Club

subsidiary, ought to jump into this game fast. It could use its scale and existing storefronts, dropping home delivery but picking and holding the order for you at its warehouse stores.

Little Rock's

Ron Walker

wrote:

You place a phone, fax or Web order. You can have a charge card or debit card on file. They get the order ready and email/fax/phone you when it's ready (or give you a pick-up time when you enter your Web order). You can drive through. You enter your customer number, a la an ATM machine, and the people match up your order. The nonperishables are in one box, your refrigerated stuff in another box, and your frozen food in yet another. You grab them off the loading dock and you're out of there, like you do at Sam's, Home Depot (HD) - Get Report, etc. No expensive refrigerators or freezers in the garage, no expensive delivery or shipping, etc.

And from

Ralph Xavier Jr.

:

How about simplifying this process? Forget the delivery. Why not email your grocery order and pick up the order at the store? Yes, this method is not as streamlined as the delivery model with refrigeration units installed in garages, but it eliminates the capital expense of a fleet of trucks, not to mention the maintenance, safety and liability costs of a delivery service. You want groceries? Email your order and it will be ready when you get there. Just provide a PIN number and the grocer will give you the goods.

Fair enough. This model doesn't get it to your door, but it eliminates those endless strolls through the aisles, looking for the stuff they moved across the store since your last visit. (Which reminds me, why do grocery stores re-engineer their layouts so often? Seems to me a well-laid-out store plan -- one that customers have internalized, so that they know where nice fava beans are as well as any clerk in the store -- is a heck of a proprietary advantage for a store. Why throw that away? Just asking.)

Many readers pointed out that a reasonable alternative to Web grocery shopping has existed for some time, using phone and fax orders. Connecticut's

Penny Seiffert

wrote: "I shop at a privately owned, high-quality grocery chain (five stores in central Connecticut) that offers prime meats, prepared dinner entrees, everything from 'soup to nuts' and is renowned for customer service. I can phone an order in anytime and have delivery for $2."

A number of readers praised local grocers who deliver -- and predicted that this business will never see consolidation, that local grocers will catch on in time and hold on to their business through great service.

David Hilburn

of Bossier City, La., wrote: "Ultimately, I think that the local stores will enter this market, and the perception that the customer is getting fresher food or more personal service will prevail, and the local stores will beat the Web grocers."

Seattle's

HomeGrocer.com

and the Boston area's

Hannaford Brothers' Home Runs

got the most praise, as from

Mike Carroll

:

Hey, you missed the best of the best when it comes to grocery delivery: Home Runs. The prices are the same or better than grocery stores, you can use regular coupons, and there is no delivery charge. In addition, you can return bottles, and they will soon sell beer and wine. Delicate items are often better than you can buy at the store because they have been handled less. Frozen food is delivered rock solid. They take orders by phone, fax and Internet. And to top it all off, deliveries are on time by professional-looking, polite people who don't accept tips! When I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up, these guys would bring deliveries right into my kitchen. If there was anything, and I mean anything, marginally wrong with the order, they would take it off your bill.

Wish they'd had that when

I

lived in Boston!

Richard Greene weighed in on HomeGrocer.com: "One

Nordstrom

-esque story: My friend ordered some organic yogurt from HomeGrocer.com for her child. When the HomeGrocer delivery man came, though, he said they were out of stock. She said, 'So now I have to make a trip to the store? This defeats the whole purpose.' So the delivery man himself went to the nearest supermarket, bought the product and brought it back to her, free of charge."

Tom Peters

must have been doing some consulting for HomeGrocer.com.

Ken Tartoff

has a wonderful idea, right in tune with the times -- though he doesn't think Web grocers have a future:

The trouble with grocery shopping is the very experience of it. It just ain't fun. And if it ain't fun, why do it? Once the supermarkets of America realize that they are really in the entertainment industry, then we will ditch the Net and head to the market. Make those markets places to learn, meet people and be entertained, and those stores will make a fortune. That's what brick and mortar were made for in the first place.

And otherwise-unidentified Eugene knows what in-store shopping's

really

about: "I'll consider online shopping for groceries when I can get free samples. I am particularly brazen where pizza is concerned. I often manage to pick up two goodie-laden squares that 'seem' to be stuck together."

Kentucky dentist

Art Gonty

sees online shopping as a boon for the elderly and shut-ins, especially when their kids or other relatives can cybershop for them. "My mother-in-law is 82 and has to pay someone to pick her up and bring her back when she does her grocery shopping. She is quite capable of getting online to order groceries. My wife has MS and she still gets out there to shop, but it is a chore," he wrote. "This would be great for her. She looks for all the bargains, though, and she might be unhappy if the online service didn't get the best prices!"

Finally, an odd duck named

Jim Cramer

wrote to say that he saw in

Streamline

-like services a way out of his personal shopping misery:

Yep, Streamline is so right. These jobs are all my jobs, done on the way home from work. I leave here at 5:15, but I don't get home until 6:30 despite the 25 -minute commute because every day I have to do one of the things you are talking about: laundry, stamps, milk, dinner, veggies, juice. I have to get out of the car and park and go in and brave lines at every single place for marginal items that we could store very easily. As a concession to me, my wife takes a trip once a month to BJ's so that I don't have to get the staples. That's close to five hours of my life a week that I lose out of a total of 25 hours that I can spend with my kids when I am not at work and they are not asleep. More important, it's five hours when they are alert to play with or work with. 30 bucks? How about $300? Heck, how about $3,000?

Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, although positions can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are consulting clients of Seymour Group, or have been in recent years. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at

jseymour@thestreet.com.