E-tomatoes Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

All right, call me crazy. It's not that I love grocery shopping, it's just that I don't dread it as much as most people do.

That might seem doubly incredible to people who know that I spent nearly a quarter of a century working in supermarkets. Maybe it's because I can enjoy a kind of academic interest in the business now that I don't have to worry about whether there's enough bread on the shelf or milk in the cooler.

Besides, I like to squeeze the tomatoes and sift through the apples.

Until August, Turner Dairy in Penn Hills was a third-generation family-owned business well known locally as one of the few dairies that still offered home delivery service -- something that's become a bit of an anachronism in recent years. Turner Dairy finally gave up home delivery, saying it just doesn't pay for itself, even at almost a buck a gallon premium over the going retail price. Still, 1,200 of its customers were willing to pay extra for the convenience of having milk delivered to their doorstep.

Oddly enough, Turner is getting out of home delivery just as venture capitalists and dot-com entrepreneurs are pouring millions of dollars into home delivery services. Those investors are betting big money that consumers in big enough numbers are going to be eager enough to avoid supermarket checkouts to turn to the likes of Peapod and ShopLink.

Home delivery of groceries, I'm convinced, will catch on. It won't take away all of the business from bricks-and-mortar locations, but it will become a substantial part of the food business. The convenience of it will simply make it an irresistible choice for consumers.

And the companies that will be most successful at it will not be the whiz-bang dot-coms, at least not the ones with lots of Internet knowledge but scant understanding of grocery shoppers. Who will be the ones to figure out how to make this work? The supermarket operators, that's who.

There's evidence that the conventional retailers have an inkling that it's going to take hold. Dutch grocery giant Royal Ahold has poured $73 million into Peapod, of Lake Zurich, Ill., to take a 51 percent stake in the dot-com delivery company.

Analysts take a dim view of the prospects of the home delivery business, citing the high cost of operation, particularly labor, as a barrier to making it profitable. What they don't see, however, is that in both the so-called old and new economies, barriers are often opportunities in disguise.

Automated picking systems could ease the labor cost problem. The transportation logistics field is revolutionizing the conveyance of freight, utilizing sophisticated computer software to route commodities between points at increasingly efficient levels. No doubt the same technology can be applied to the grocery shopping process.

Advances in packaging technology will overcome spoilage issues. And developments in agriculture will bring the day when every head of lettuce or cut of meat is virtually identical, making the quality of those perishables more predictable.

Then there's the convenience factor. With all of the other activities that busy people are trying to pack into their days, a few bucks in exchange for avoiding the hassle of the supermarket might be a welcome trade-off. Under the right circumstances, even I might be tempted to enter a few keystrokes instead of driving to the store.

But I'll probably miss squeezing the tomatoes.

During the day, Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Pittsburgh. On his off hours, though, you may find him in the produce department -- squeezing tomatoes -- at a supermarket near you. We're not sure why.