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Money Tech | Online Shopper

Click and Save a Trip to the Store

November 16, 2000|JENNIFER LOWE | jennifer.lowe@latimes.com

In my book, you either hate grocery shopping or you love it.

I hate it.

Buying groceries online is my ace in the hole, especially with the holidays approaching.

The only Web-based fully stocked grocer to serve Southern California is HomeGrocer.com, whose big trucks with the big peach deliver to most of the L.A. area, all of Orange County, San Diego and parts of the Inland Empire.

I've become a HomeGrocer convert. Although there are other online food shops, HomeGrocer has been on the scene the longest and is still the only Internet grocer that can bring everything from diapers and dishwashing soap to pomegranates, favorite kid cereals and salmon fillets to most of the Southland. I first ordered more than a year ago and have used it about once a month since. Its inventory is close to a typical supermarket's, with a full range of fresh produce, fresh meat and seafood, dry and canned goods and some deli items. What you won't find are some of the extras at grocery stores, such as hot roasted chickens.

The key reason to use HomeGrocer is convenience. The site doesn't take coupons; it has no house brands or club cards. The site isn't for small purchases because any order less than $75 carries a $9.95 delivery fee, and the soonest it can arrive is the next day. And HomeGrocer has yet to turn a profit, so who knows whether it'll be around if you become a believer.

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And what about prices? I've found HomeGrocer's prices to be close to supermarkets', though it seems you can save more money shopping wisely at a grocery store by using double coupons and sticking with weekly specials. Item by item, HomeGrocer holds its own; a favorite cereal I buy every week, Quaker Toasted Oatmeal Honey Nut, goes for a dime less on HomeGrocer than at Ralphs. But Ralphs recently had a "buy one, get one free" sale on it; no such luck online.

While online grocery ordering carries frustrations--slow-loading pages, Web sites that might not have a favorite item--computer frustrations hold nowhere near the pain for me of standing in a long line because not enough checkout lanes are open.

If you are looking to try another site, there are several smaller local rivals: Whyrunout.com delivers groceries, dry-cleaning and videos to customers in south Orange County. PDQuick.com, which began as a phone ordering service, brings items a convenience store would sell, delivering them in less than an hour, as does New York-based Kozmo.com. And Bristol Farms, the boutique grocer, just began an online ordering service.

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When HomeGrocer debuted here last fall, it was more difficult to find sale items. But the company has recently added a sale icon on the home page that brings up the week's 200 or so markdowns. You can shop that way or shop the virtual aisles (arranged much like a regular supermarket) or shop from a list of your frequently purchased products, which HomeGrocer presents you with each time you shop. A novice, though, could easily spend more than an hour doing an order.

You also have to be a good shopper to find everything you want. My biggest headache was sorting through package sizes as I eyed postage-stamp-size computer pictures. At the grocery store, I had no trouble grabbing the right pudding and pie-filling box--it was the smaller box on the shelf. But HomeGrocer offered it in just one choice. Was that the right size? I also had problems when ordering fresh halibut fillets on HomeGrocer from Santa Monica Seafood. The first time, I was brought less than the site promised me--but an efficient customer service representative quickly dispatched more at no charge. But the second time, I botched the order by ordering only two 0.6-ounce pieces of fish for three of us--the ounce weight, rather than pounds, threw me. Now, I overorder and eat leftovers.

And of course, the same rule for the regular aisles applies to the virtual aisles--you'll always forget one thing, requiring a return trip, which means I still won't give up on my local supermarkets.

Here are some other tips for shopping on HomeGrocer:

* Log on and immediately pick your delivery time. HomeGrocer's trucks run 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends and 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. weekdays. Monday is the busiest day, mid-week is the least busy, the company says. You can place an order up to two weeks ahead, but try this: Pick a delivery time, place a few items in your cart, check out. You have until 11 p.m. the night before delivery to add items as you think of them throughout the week.

* Make a grocery list. Don't think you can't impulse shop in virtual grocery aisles. All those photos of fresh fruits and vegetables look perfect--unlike produce aisles in the store--which caused me more than once to overorder.

* Watch what you're doing. On one order, I quickly clicked from one item to the next without watching the item appear on my purchase list, not realizing until I unpacked my bags that I'd ordered five large cans of tomatoes instead of one.

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