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Buying Groceries Online: Slim Pickings

Shopping: Sure, it's convenient, but selection is limited and there are few services to choose from in L.A., at least for now.

November 26, 1998|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine restocking your cupboard without setting foot in a supermarket.

In Los Angeles, it's possible to order groceries online--if you're patient and willing to settle for fewer choices than you'd find in the grocery store.

NetGrocer doesn't sell meat, produce or other perishables, and it offers a spotty selection of name brands. But its online order form is easy to use. And it dangles some special promotions--such as a free grinder with an order of coffee beans.

Pink Dot sells a broad selection of groceries, including fresh foods. But its prices tend to be higher than NetGrocer's. And it doesn't carry some products, such as detergent, in large sizes.

I recently ordered from both services to see how they measured up.

Both delivered the groceries in good shape and when promised. The order from Pink Dot, which ships from local warehouses, arrived within 30 minutes. The delivery charge is low, but the drivers expect a tip.

The order from NetGrocer, which ships by FedEx, arrived in five days, after the company had sent an e-mail confirming my order. The box was left on my doorstep. NetGrocer charges $13.99 to $24.99 for delivery, depending on the dollar amount of the order.

The selection offered by both services was disappointing. NetGrocer carries many brand-name cereals but no Coke, Pepsi or other popular soft drinks. It has a broad selection of gourmet products, but not the Jif peanut butter that I craved.

Pink Dot sells only private-label lunch meat--no Oscar Mayer or Hickory Farms. Its ready-to-eat sandwiches and salads were unappetizing. The Peking Palace salad had wilted lettuce and lunch meat instead of fresh chicken. The bread on a turkey sandwich was rubbery.

Picking up a few items online did save me at least one trip to the grocery store. And, without the temptation of store displays, I made fewer impulse purchases.

But I don't think I'd order from either service regularly. It's just too easy to hop in the car and whiz over to my local market. And frankly, neither service seems to offer all the items I need.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles has few online services to choose from. Experts say that's because high-income residents are not concentrated in one easy-to-serve delivery area. And Los Angeles lacks the severe weather that entices consumers elsewhere to pay extra to have their groceries delivered.

Some local markets have discontinued online services. And Shoppers Express, a national service that operated in Los Angeles, recently folded.

Peapod, the nation's largest online grocer, said that serving Los Angeles is part of its long-range plans.

"We hope Los Angeles will be on our list in a year or two," said Chief Operating Officer John Walden.

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Virtual Supermarkets

The Times ordered food from two online grocers recently to see how they stacked up with their bricks-and-mortar competitors in terms of cost and overall quality.

NetGrocer Inc.

http://www.netgrocer.com

Prices

Competitive--some lower than your local grocery store. NetGrocer also has specials like a free coffee grinder when you purchase a bag of whole bean coffee.

*

Shipping fees/delivery time

Shipping charges for West Coast buyer run from $13.99 to $24.99, depending on the price of your order. Orders are supposed to arrive in one to four days via Federal Express. Ours arrived in five. It was left on the doorstep instead of with the building superintendent, as requested.

*

Quality

Groceries arrived packed in a large box with Styrofoam. Glass bottles of mineral water were intact and spaghetti unbroken. A box of cereal was slightly crumpled on one end.

*

Convenience

Electronic menus are easy to navigate--once you learn what's in each department.

*

Customer service

NetGrocer says that if you receive the wrong product or an item is damaged in shipping, call (888) NET-GROCER and it will credit your charge card.

*

Drawback

Choices are limited. While there are many brand-name cereals to choose from, popular soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Diet Pepsi aren't offered. It doesn't sell fresh meat or produce, so most of its customers will have to hit a grocery store anyway.

*

Pink Dot

http://www.pinkdot.com

Prices

Reasonable, but not cheap. About the same as a convenience store.

*

Shipping fees/delivery time

$2.99 for all orders, plus the tip you give to the driver. Order arrived in 30 minutes. Credit cards, local checks and cash.

*

Quality

Most everything was intact, including a carton of fresh eggs. But a loaf of bread arrived crushed, and a deli sandwich looked wilted. King-sized packages generally not available. A 20-ounce bottle of Downey softener was the only size offered.

*

Convenience

Navigating the electronic menu is time-consuming. You can search for an item only from the main menu. Figuring out search words can be tricky. Typing in "turkey" and "luncheon meat" turned up nothing, but "meat" produced the cold-cuts selections.

*

Customer Service

Pink Dot says that if something is damaged in delivery, it will either send a driver back to replace it or refund your money.

*

Drawback

Available only in parts of Los Angeles, including the San Fernando Valley and the Westside, Pasadena and communities in the South Bay.

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