Off your trolley

Do online supermarkets really deliver? Cotton Ward clicks her way through the weekly groceries.

More people are leaving behind parking hassles and flimsy carrier bags in favour of point-and-click of online supermarkets.

There’s no need to set foot in the mall again when you sign up at one of the four major online stores: GreenGrocer.com, ShopFast, Woolworths or Coles.

But are they as good as they’re made out to be? Is online shopping the solution to supermarket drudgery or just a cute idea whose time has yet to come?

To help you choose the best, I road-tested each online service. That meant ordering a variety of items and comparing ease of shopping, price, cost and accuracy of delivery and freshness.

Overall, the results were impressive.

Despite the large number of products available, no single store was able to supply every item. The selection at the online stores doesn’t always match the variety in the supermarket aisles.

For example, there is a brand of yoghurt and a stir-fry sauce available in Coles and Woolworths that is nowhere to be seen at their online stores. However, I managed to get about 98 per cent of our list items from every vendor.

With the exception of Coles, the quantities of meat and seafood were larger than I would have liked.

If you don’t intend to freeze seafood or eat fish every night of a week, this is something to consider.

Compared with only ix months ago, the Web sites and services have expanded dramatically and improved. Each site totes up the cost of items as you buy them, either automatically or by asking you to update your basket.

Delivery costs range from $5.95 to $13.69, which is reasonable when you consider it costs about $5 to have goods home-delivered after you’ve loaded your own trolley.

ShopFast and GreenGrocer deliver six days a week and charge different fees for peak and off-peak times. Coles and Woolworths have daily deliveries and don’t charge extra for this service, but you would already have paid their standard fees of $13.69 and $12.50 respectively.

After delivery costs, the pricing of food online is generally about the same as in real-world stores. If you don’t have a credit card, you won’t be able to shop at GreenGrocer.com. The other stores accept Eftpos at the door. Once you’ve ordered, the delivery person will whisk your goods straight through to the kitchen counter.

The main drawback of cyber shopping is the difficulty in checking whether a new product or different brand is the item you want. The online stores are slowly including product descriptions and photos, but there’s still a long way to go.

It still takes about three orders to set up a comprehensive shopping list. Trawling through the lists to find what you want is the most tedious part of the experience. But, as your master shopping list builds, it becomes very straightforward. However, you may still find yourself making a trip to the corner shop to pick up food you either forgot to select, or to buy a brand or speciality available only at the local deli.

Www.consult analyst Ian Webster says online grocery shoppers are the most satisfied of all Internet consumers. “They are the most enthusiastic of all online shoppers,” Webster says. “For some, shopping online is truly wonderful.”

He says about one in 1000 grocery shoppers uses an online service. “The challenge the supermarkets have is working out how to encourage more people to use it and to determine the size of the market.”

More people than ever are enjoying the convenience of online shopping, says ShopFast’s marketing director Rob Fitzpatrick. He says the service has about 90,000 users, which covers more than 5 per cent of Sydney households.

One of the major concerns about online shopping is that you can’t see the quality of fruit and veg. To get around this, GreenGrocer.com rates the produce and gives tips on what to buy in a twice-weekly email.

“Our customers are fairly fussy,” says CEO Douglas Carlson. “We deliver to top hotels and restaurants, such as Level 41, and our customers get the same high quality. That’s what separates us from everyone else.”

The company was founded in 1997 and has about 75,000 registered shoppers.

GreenGrocer.com’s Web site has fewer bells and whistles than the others and, Carlson says, this minimises the chances of technical hitches. “We’ve kept it simple so customers can use it from work and don’t have as many problems with corporate firewalls.”

Big bite
In December Woolworths bought 38 per cent of GreenGrocer.com, and the company expanded its range of supermarket items. So does this mean it will be merged with the supermarket chain? “No, Woolworths values the fact that we cover a niche segment of the market,” says GreenGrocer.com boss Douglas Carlson.

MAKING A LIST AND CHECKING IT TWICE

You need a basic list or a couple of dockets from previous shopping trips because the most difficult aspect of online grocery shopping is that once you click on a department, such as “laundry”, you’re faced with a huge product list.

Some of the sites feature recipes. Click a button and all the ingredients will be delivered.

Use the fastest connection available

A 56KBps dial-up connection at home can be incredibly slow when you’re searching through several online “aisles”. It’s better to compile lists and scroll through the sites using a faster Internet connection, for instance at work (don’t tell the boss).

Check your order

Do this the first couple of times you order until you’re familiar with the site, as it can be easy to select the same item twice.

Specify expiry dates

None of the services has a fixed policy about expiry dates, apart from checking the items haven’t expired. If you’re not happy with items received, you can get replacement products. You can include instructions such as “ripe bananas wanted” .

Cheapest prices

Fruit, vegetables and meat tended to be cheaper at GreenGrocer.com and ShopFast and all the other items were mostly cheaper at Woolworths and Coles. When I checked the online prices for 10 items from Coles and Woolworths online against the same stores in Leichhardt, prices were identical.

Return recyclable boxes

Unpack and give these to the driver immediately, otherwise they’ll be sitting around your house for a week.

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