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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | CYVERSPACE

Groceries Sans the Checkout Lines

May 24, 1999|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A service that corner grocery stores provided in the decades before World War II is coming back to life courtesy of the Internet: home-delivered groceries.

The proportion of people receiving home deliveries is rising sharply. In 1929, 13.8% of all food was delivered to the home, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That fell to 1% by 1986. This year, about 2.6% of all food will be delivered to the home, and the figure is expected to continue rising in coming years.

HomeGrocer.com has perhaps the best pedigree in the emerging field. The 1-year-old company is backed by famed venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. Former Netscape Chief Executive Jim Barksdale is on its board, and Amazon.com recently invested in the firm.

But what do all these financial types know about groceries? I've seen HomeGrocer.com's trucks rolling around my Seattle neighborhood, so when I discovered the refrigerator was looking rather bare one evening last week, I decided to give them a try.

I grabbed the shopping list off the refrigerator, sat down at my computer and pointed my browser to http://www.homegrocer.com. The sign-on process was quick and soon I was loading up my electronic shopping cart from a well-categorized list of some 12,000 items.

First, I pointed to dairy products: click, 2 gallons of 2% milk at $2.49 each; click, a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream for $3.19; click, a quart of half and half for coffee. Don't need eggs. Each item is added to a list on the right of the screen and the total cost tallied.

On to fruit. Five bananas at 29 cents each, three Bartlett pears and five Fuji apples at 59 cents each. Among the vegetables (all priced at supermarket levels) I chose one avocado (cleverly listed under both the fruit and vegetable categories), a green pepper, half a pound of sugar snap peas, a bunch of asparagus, a head of red leaf lettuce and a hothouse tomato.

The meat selection isn't great if you aren't into expensive beef and poultry. I got frozen chicken fillets at a pricey $3.60 for 9 ounces.

I looked over my the list. Oops! Forgot the crushed tomatoes. No need to go back to aisle five. I just moved my mouse a couple of inches and clicked.

I also needed rock salt for one of those fancy grinders I just bought. I went to the search box. Presto! The same technique helped me find tofu, lunch meat, pesto sauce, fresh pasta and tortillas.

So far, I'd spent about $65. With a bill of at least $75, I wouldn't have to pay the $9.95 delivery charge, so I went to wines and picked out a Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 for $6.79.

Hey, great, they sell stamps. I got 20 for $6.60.

Now for a look at the seasonal specials. Wow. Ten tulips for $3.99. That's half the grocery store price. Click that.

The Web site will store my list so that next time I shop I only have to make adjustments. But occasionally I like to try something new. For that, I used the "recipe" function. The apple-maple-glazed salmon with plum and papaya chutney sounded great. Click and I had the recipe along with the 14 ingredients at the bottom. All I had to do is click "buy" on the ones I didn't have.

The computer then asked me to pick a 90-minute time period for delivery the next day beginning at 2 p.m. and ending at 9:30 p.m.

The next day, the delivery man was on time. The produce was unbelievable. The apples were cool, sweet and crisp. The avocado was ripe to perfection. The ice cream was hard. The only problem was the tulips, which were drooping from a lack of water.

Later, I took a quick trip to my local supermarket for comparison. With the exception of a few items such as strawberries and asparagus, which happened to be on sale at the supermarket, most prices were comparable. In a few cases, such as processed food and organic produce, prices were somewhat lower at HomeGrocer.

There were a few things, such as sliced cheddar cheese, that weren't on my list that I would have been reminded of by walking down the aisles. On the other hand, by buying online I didn't worry about kids tagging along and insisting on junk food.

Terry Drayton, chief executive of HomeGrocer.com, came up with the idea after boasting to his wife one day that his company had just delivered 12,000 bottles of water. His harried wife suggested he would be more helpful if he could find a way to get groceries to her doorstep.

The secret to the company's success is a warehouse twice the size of the typical supermarket. It has a computer-controlled refrigeration system that assures each product is stored at the right temperature. Fish is ordered each night from a company that owns its own fleet of boats, for delivery to homes the next day.

Getting food directly from a wholesaler or warehouse has other unexpected benefits.

"The average head of lettuce has been handled 11 times at the grocery store before you buy it," Drayton said. "Handling is the enemy of product quality."

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