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Groceries in the Mist

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Since Tristan was born in January, Tonya and I have been leaving the house less frequently. We can't escape midwife and pediatrician appointments, but we've cut down on shopping - or rather, shopping that we can't do via the Internet. I'm not talking about books or CDs, but the true necessities of life - food and drink, which we now buy through HomeGrocer.com, an Internet company based in Bellevue, Washington. As much as we like Amazon and My Yahoo, HomeGrocer.com is well on its way to influencing our lives more than any other Internet-based business.

<http://www.homegrocer.com/>

HomeGrocer.com opened in May of 1998, and their concept is simple. You order your groceries on a Web site, pay with a credit card, and have them delivered at a time you've chosen. HomeGrocer.com currently serves only the Puget Sound area, but I'm sure they plan to expand. If you live near Seattle, you can try HomeGrocer.com, and if not, look for similar services near you.

<http://archives.seattletimes.com/cgi-bin/texis/ web/vortex/display?storyID=101438& amp;query=HomeGrocer>
<http://dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/ Companies/Food/Retail/Grocers/Online_ Shopping/>

Shopping -- HomeGrocer.com will eventually charge a $35 per year membership fee, though they currently waive it to attract customers. Once you've logged in to the site, you see a page divided into four sections with frames. The top horizontal frame provides navigation and an ever-present Quickfinder search field. Searching is quick, although the searches are broad, so if you search for "vermouth," you'll see results with words like "Vermont" in their descriptions.

The left vertical frame contains Lists, Recipes, and Products. You browse through categories and see items and search results in the middle vertical frame. And finally, the right vertical frame contains your cart, the items you've said you want to buy.

HomeGrocer.com lets you make your own lists of items that you buy regularly and maintains two lists for you automatically: Last Shop, which records items you bought the last time you shopped, and My HomeGrocer.com, which records everything you've ever bought. These lists are especially useful if you buy roughly the same food each week.

The third section in the left frame, Products, contains all the products HomeGrocer.com carries, broken down into categories. Many items appear in multiple categories, so you aren't forced to guess the proper one.

When you view an existing list or start browsing the products, you're essentially searching HomeGrocer.com's database. The middle frame displays the results of those searches, either a collection of items (listed with size and price) or an individual item that you've clicked for more detail. Details vary by item, although they always include name, size, and price. Pictures are often available, and occasionally nutritional information as well. Ideally, every item would feature both a picture and full nutritional information, including ingredients.

Buying items is easy, just click the Buy button next to an item to add it to your cart in the right frame. The cart is currently sorted randomly, but HomeGrocer.com plans to fix that soon. Each item has a field next to it where you can change the quantity of each thing you want to buy. After you change the number of items, you must click the Update Subtotal button at the top of the right frame to change your subtotal. When you're done, the Checkout button in the right frame takes you to a confirmation page where you pick a delivery time and add any special instructions. A final click confirms the order and you're done.

Shopping for a week's worth of groceries took us about an hour the first time or two, but that time has dropped as we become more familiar with the HomeGrocer.com site and products. Since merely driving to and from the grocery store takes us 40 minutes, using HomeGrocer.com is a huge time savings. That's important for us these days, but it's also good because the Internet businesses that have done well are those that give you time.

Selection -- Everyone asks us about HomeGrocer.com's selection and produce. Their selection is good, certainly comparable to normal grocery stores. It tends toward prepackaged food and well-known brands, but you can request missing items. I asked them to add 16 ounce cans of Minute Maid frozen orange juice and Huggies newborn diapers, along with ground pork and bulk spices. Three days later, I received email telling me that they'd added the orange juice and diapers and were working on the other requests. It's best to ask for specific items - requests like bulk spices tend to throw them.

People are suspicious of buying produce through HomeGrocer.com because the idea of someone else picking out your lettuce is initially dubious. But it turns out that HomeGrocer.com's produce is as good or better than produce at a normal supermarket, although it doesn't compare to the vegetables at a farmer's market we frequent in the summer. In a supermarket, the produce is tossed on the shelves, pawed over by shoppers, sprayed by those scary little water jets, left out in non-refrigerated displays, and then driven home in your non-refrigerated car. In contrast, HomeGrocer.com's produce goes straight from their refrigerated warehouse to the refrigerated truck to your kitchen, with minimal handling.

I do think HomeGrocer.com can go farther with specialty items, large sizes, and obscure products. Shelf space in a supermarket is important, so slow-selling speciality items don't receive much space, whereas (in the U.S. anyway) most supermarkets have an entire aisle devoted to oddly colored breakfast cereal. Since HomeGrocer.com has essentially no limitation on shelf space, they should be able to offer a wider selection of uncommon products.

Although it's never guaranteed, HomeGrocer.com occasionally just gives you additional stuff. Your first order gets a bag of free produce, and our driver also gave us a baguette. Another time, we received 50 1-cent makeup stamps to account for the new U.S. first class letter postal rates, and for Valentine's Day, they gave us daffodils. Small touches like this cost little and help ensure customer loyalty and strong word of mouth. HomeGrocer.com also encourages word of mouth references by giving the referrers $20 of free groceries for each new customer. Heck, if just a few TidBITS readers list us as the reason for signing up with HomeGrocer.com, TidBITS could be directly responsible for putting food on our table!

Prices -- HomeGrocer.com's prices are comparable with the more expensive supermarkets in the area. You can find cheaper prices if you drive around and shop sales, but then you have to factor your time and mileage into the cost. For minimizing costs, it's important to avoid the delivery fee, which HomeGrocer.com waives if you order more than $75 of groceries. When we're near $65, I buy a bottle of wine or something we'll use eventually. Even though we tend to bulk up our order to hit $75, we do almost no impulse buying, which lowers our weekly grocery bills.

Delivery -- The delivery process works well. HomeGrocer.com has a fleet of trucks painted with huge peach logos. You pick a 90 minute window for your delivery; so far we've been able to choose a delivery time the next day, though it's not guaranteed. Even after you've scheduled a delivery, you can add or remove items until 11:00 PM the night before the delivery.

We've been impressed by HomeGrocer.com's delivery people. They have all been bright, personable, and chatty. Delivering to our house is tricky, since we live at the end of a very steep, mile-long, one lane road. The drivers have all treated it with good humor; we even received a card from one driver thanking us and neighbors who had helped her turn around for being so understanding.

Finally, it's more efficient to have a single truck delivering groceries to a bunch of people than it is for everyone to drive to the store. One driver commented that she'd driven 76 miles for 7 stops in a rural area (10.9 miles per stop), but another driver had that day done 18 stops in 42 miles (2.3 miles per stop). Even considering that the trucks get worse gas mileage and pollute more than commuter cars, I suspect these trucks are better for the environment.

Audience -- HomeGrocer.com isn't for everyone. If you can't hit $75 per order, the $10 delivery fee may not be worthwhile. If you aren't home to receive orders reliably, you can pick them up at HomeGrocer.com's warehouse or have them delivered to your work, but if that's not convenient, you're out of luck.

Some groups should investigate HomeGrocer.com or similar services. I've seen references to HomeGrocer.com on a multiple sclerosis resources Web page, and anyone who's homebound could benefit from grocery delivery. We started using them because we didn't want to traipse around a grocery store with a baby, but I've also heard of parents who prefer HomeGrocer.com because it's easier than keeping children away from the candy in the checkout line.

HomeGrocer.com relies on JavaScript for its shopping cart functionality and uses cookies to track the state of your shopping session, so people who won't use JavaScript and refuse cookies won't be able to use HomeGrocer.com. However, the company has a strong privacy policy that protects your registration information and tracks shopping patterns only in the aggregate (like most other Web sites analyze their logs). Better yet, HomeGrocer.com explicitly says it will never trade or sell your information to any other party.

No matter what your specific situation, if you're reading this, you're probably sufficiently Internet-savvy to consider a service like HomeGrocer.com. You might as well - I think it's a foregone conclusion that the Internet will become the preferred marketplace for commodity items. After all, how many people enjoy shopping for basic groceries?

 

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