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Food

A Consumer Reports: Buying Groceries Online

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I've had a few thoughts in the past about buying groceries online. One was more nostalgic and comparative, when thinking about how in New York City you can shop for your groceries in the store and then have them brought to your apartment, and how it's almost ironic that there, in a city where everything is so easily accessible that you can have anything--even pancakes--delivered to your door, whereas here in Los Angeles things are less accessible, and far fewer places deliver. Another is that it seems almost counterintuitive for someone such as myself to take the tangibility out of the process. So as ordering groceries online seems to be gaining in popularity (this Houston article says Americans spent $3.3 billion buying groceries online in 2005) I've given it more thought, but have always dismissed it as unnecessary and a tad indulgent. After all, I'm a capable young person--why can't I get my own darn groceries?

So here's the situation. I live within reasonable walking distance of a Ralphs, which I loathe, and will only frequent if I'm having a baking or cooking emergency and need to run out for one ingredient. I also live within very reasonable driving distance from at least one each of Vons, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Jons, Albertson's and Gelson's, as well as more Ralphs stores, and dozens of ethnic specialty stores. Sure, I get luxury envy for those folks, like morning newscasters, who brag about the ease of pointing and clicking to get their wares sent to their doorsteps, and yes, I was one of those Swingers-era late 90s and in my early 20s kind of people who thought it was a hoot to order from Pink Dot at all hours--the wackier the order the better.

But the Dot's luminous sheen didn't hang around long, and its novelty (and 7-11 style inconvenient pricing for basic goods) lost its charm. I'd never seriously contemplated going online to get my groceries. Until this weekend.

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This is the lowdown: I was afflicted with agonizing dental pain. I don't wish it on my mortal enemies (um, if I have any of those) and the hows and whys of the affliction I'd say I'd leave to another story, but I mean, seriously, no one--not even me--wants to hear about it. Bottom line was, for several days, as I awaited my one-week away dental appointment, I became a sort of hermit who howled in pain intermittently. I had like zero energy, and was running out of some crucial stuff, namely OTC pain meds and toilet paper, and non-crunchy food items. I tried to picture making a quick trip to any one of my local stores, but couldn't get past the whole getting dressed part. I was exhausted, achy, cranky, and desperate. Perhaps not Vons.com's target consumer, but there I was, nonetheless, taking those first timid keystrokes that would send my beloved Odwalla Vanilla Almondo protein drink and plain applesauce right to my front door.

Here's how it works. Once you figure out who delivers in your area (I went with Vons, because I knew they delivered, and they're my fave of the big three chains) the best approach is to work from a list. It's really against the grain to fill your virtual cart by cruising the aisles, because even doing that still requires inputting directives, thus implying you have an aim beyond trolling the shelves to see what jumps out. Yes, you can "shop the aisles" and break things down from produce to fruit, but then you have to think about distinctions like "tropical" or "seasonal." For someone like me, who doesn't necessarily think in terms of numbers and measurements, it's a strange sensation to see a picture of a can of beans and a description that says 28 oz, because "28 oz" is sort of meaningless to me; in person I could easily distinguish the regular sized can from the jumbo can by sight. (This is how I ended up with a bigger than expected can of dark red kidney beans. Bean salad, anyone?) Sometimes the image didn't match the description, and out of worry I'd get something other than what I wanted (ladies, you'll understand how if you're looking for Pearl tampons you most certainly don't want to end up with a box of OB) and it made me rethink my order based on the site's programming error. Produce was easier than I thought, in terms of quantity; for tomatoes I just said 5, and the site calculated an estimate for weight.

Towards the end they ask you how you'd like to handle substitutions, whether it be to get the same brand but another size, or the same size of another brand, or not at all. This was great, because I'm an orange juice snob and will only drink one brand and would be mightily pissed to see Donald Duck or Tropicana in place of my Odwalla fresh squeezed. However, this option was limiting in that, for example, with my coffee--I would not like a larger one, nor another brand, but would have been fine with another kind of bean, like a French Roast instead of Verona blend, but had no way of making that a possibility. Worrying if they might be out of any given item, but not being able to know until they got to my house, did put a little crimp in the experience. When I was all done, and loaded up with all those heavy pantry items I hate to carry from the car to my apartment by myself, I selected a delivery window of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the following day, and curled up in front of the television with an ice pack pressed to my throbbing jaw.

My groceries arrived just before 11:45 the next morning, well within the window time. A very friendly young man had my stuff in plastic crates on a dolly, and although he did ask how I wanted them delivered, out of the newness of things I just sort of let him hand me stuff bag by bag and I set them in my kitchen. Environmentalists, beware: They use way too many plastic bags--sometimes one per item. I started to pull things out and asked if I could give him back some bags, and he said yes, they'd recycle them. Whew! He showed me my invoice--nothing had to be substituted, hooray for my orange juice and coffee and feminine products--and had me sign off. I offered him a gratuity, and he politely declined out of company policy--very interesting, I thought, a delivery service with a no-tipping rule. He did ask that I call the customer service line and give him a favorable review, which I will happily do. All my stuff was there, not an egg unbroken, not a bad tomato in the bunch, not a dent in any can, and I didn't lift a finger. Okay, yes--I felt like a shut in sort of sad-sack, but given the circumstances it seemed like the thing to do. I can't see myself making it a habit, not because it isn't easy or affordable (the prices seemed comparable to in-store prices, plus had automatic "club" savings without having to use an actual club card number) but because I like grocery shopping, and the hands-on process. But for those of you that don't, this might be the way to go. And that's this consumer's report.

According to their website, Vons (Safeway) online delivers to the following areas in Southern California: San Fernando Valley, South Orange County, Inland Empire, North Orange County, San Gabriel Valley, West LA, South Bay, Temecula, San Diego, Ventura, Oxnard. Delivery is $9.95 per order, and is discounted if you select a wider (4-hour) time window for delivery. I took advantage of their promotional offer of free delivery for first time customers.

Photo by NADIA BOROWSKI SCOTT / Union-Tribune (read article)