• United States

The state of online grocery shopping

Sep 22, 20044 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Doing the weekly shopping online

Several years ago supermarkets began experimenting with services that allow customers to shop online and have their purchases delivered. My wife and I always thought this was a great idea and when, a few weeks ago, we found out that our local Vons was going to begin an online shopping service we were thrilled – at $4.95 for delivery this promised to make our lives simpler and more organized.

And it is indeed far more organized because through the Vons site (see editorial links below) you can get a list of everything you’ve purchased, view and reorder from your last shopping list, and save your favorite items organized by department. They also enhance the service by offering menu planning with an extensive recipe database, a “what’s new?” feature, and special offers. In short, apparently everything you could want.

I use “apparently” because when you get into ordering you discover that pricing is highly visible in a way that seems to slip past you in the physical supermarket. It may well be that when you are actually there the compulsion to buy what’s in front of you is great enough to overcome your reluctance to buy goods that are lower priced elsewhere. Online, pricing becomes the focus.

It was also more obvious when something wasn’t available: Search for organic or kosher and you notice that there are no meats listed for either term (the reason we were looking for kosher meat is not, in our case, religious – it is because if you can’t get organic meat, kosher is the next best choice for quality and taste).

In addition, I noticed that the site’s organization was weak. When I used the “Shop By Aisle” index and clicked on “Ethnic Foods” I was presented with three results with icons labeled “Asian Foods,” “Kosher” and “Mexican Foods.”

Clicking on “Kosher” gave me another icon also labeled “Kosher.” When clicked it finally gave me the selections available. This appears to be because the site’s database is rigidly structured by category, subcategory, and finally products. If there’s only one subcategory then it is named the same as the category and still shown.

While this might not seem a big issue, it doesn’t make sense from a consumer’s viewpoint – why should they have to click twice when once should do? But will that stop consumers from shopping? Unlikely, but it does indicate an oversight in planning the consumer experience and site usability.

Note that Vons doesn’t make it easy to take a look at what they offer in online ordering – they require you to register to browse the store. I wonder why? Wouldn’t you want people to see how proactive you are being in addressing the market?

Unfortunately, our local Albertson’s doesn’t provide online ordering and delivery yet. But for the areas where the company does serve online, it has gone a little deeper into the consumer experience. For example, in its search engine it offers not just free text search but options to include Directions, Indications, Ingredients, Interactions, Product Details, Product Name, Size Description and Warnings!

It is also interesting how different the online shopping experience is from that of the real world. If I have the choice of going to my local Albertson’s or Vons which is a couple of miles away, I’d rather go to Vons – much more modern, larger, and with a better choice.  Online, those advantages are erased and just three factors become crucial: Pricing, depth of information, and site usability.

While online ordering and delivery by supermarkets is in its infancy, the result will be that all of the chains except in the most marginal areas will have to offer these services. The winners will be those that get the customer experience and pricing right. So far, I have yet to see anything that looks like more than a good try. Gentlemen, start your carts.


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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