Electronic Commerce: Forget the shopping trolley, use a CD-Rom

The big supermarket chains could learn a great deal about online food retailing from a small company in London. Sandra Vogel reports.

Grocery shopping on the Internet has had something of a bad press of late, with Tesco in particular hearing dissatisfied noises from both the press and the public. But supermarkets are not the only players in the online food retail business. FoodFerry is a small but rapidly expanding London-based outfit that has achieved remarkable success with the Internet. This is partly because it tackles remote shopping from an entirely different angle to that taken by the big name supermarkets.

A supermarket's expertise lies in putting goods on shelves and encouraging people to buy them. While some attention is given to fulfilling shopping lists, much is placed on encouraging impulse buys. Special offers, and tricks such as positioning goods at eye level and wafting smells at shoppers, are among the managers' weapons. They are wielded with abandon in order to move people around and achieve maximum profit.

The skills mix needed by the online grocery store is different, and is dictated in part by the technology itself. A serious online shop needs software that is easy to use for people who are not necessarily computer- literate. Connections need to be constantly available, and information must always be up to date. It is hopeless if a shopper tries to place orders and finds the server is down, or is able to place orders for out- of-season fruit or discontinued brands of soup.

Beyond technological considerations, the practicalities of remote shopping are very different from the supermarket variety. Many arise because customers give a large part of the shopping task over to third parties. Financial transactions, whether or not they are made over the Internet, need to be handled efficiently and accurately. Orders need to be delivered on time, every time, so that customers know they can rely on the service. Prices must remain stable, never changing between the time an order was placed and when it is delivered. And there must be a reliable way of dealing with "out of stock" problems.

FoodFerry seem to have all this under control, not least because food delivery is at the centre of their business rather than on its margins. It was set up in 1989 by James Millar, a lawyer, and Jonathan Hartnell- Beavis, an engineer, who thought there were plenty of people who shared their hatred of supermarket queues and who would pay that little bit extra for the joy of home delivery. They started small, operating in a few London postcodes, using a printed food catalogue and two delivery vans. Their premise was right, and by 1996 FoodFerry had a turnover of pounds 1m and had started to take orders by e-mail as well as phone and fax.

Today FoodFerry has 24 staff and operates out of offices in Covent Garden, which ensures ultra-fresh produce. They earn brownie points from customers for their support of organic and free-range produce, and because they try wherever possible to use UK suppliers.

FoodFerry is about to expand its online activity in a big way with a new hybrid CD-Rom and Internet-based service, which is expected to improve both quality and efficiency. Customers will use the user-friendly CD-Rom to scour virtual shelves, selecting items for their virtual shopping trolley. Then they go online to place their order. As the order is uploaded, updates to the CD-Rom are downloaded, to ensure stock and pricing information are current. Details of special offers and even advertising can be downloaded at the same time.

The CD-Rom has a range of features that show off FoodFerry's grounding in delivery and its understanding of customer care. Online shopping services from mainstream supermarkets have been particularly criticised for substituting goods for "out of stock" items in an unpredictable way. This leaves the customer always wondering whether they will get what they ordered. FoodFerry approach the problem by giving the customer free rein to attach notes to individual items, with instructions for the people who gather the goods together. If you have ordered Williams pears but would accept conference pears as a substitute, it is easy to attach a note to this effect. James Millar, now strategic director of FoodFerry, even says that his staff will contact customers if instructions are unclear.

The CD-Rom takes the requirements of speed and efficiency to heart, in several ways. Customers can set up and save trolleys of goods they buy regularly. Repeat ordering is straightforward. And the disk contains a set of recipes commissioned from the TV chef Gary Rhodes, whose entire ingredients can be ordered at the click of a button, something which Millar says is ideal for the lazy dinner-party organiser.

For those wanting ingredients, nutritional values or preparation instructions, a click on any item brings up a window with the information. Goods ordered before 10.15am will be delivered that evening.

The downside? Well, goods cost a little more than in a supermarket, but not much more, and the range is rather smaller than that at your average out-of-town supermarket, at around 2,500 lines. But Tesco and company need to start looking over their shoulders because, though FoodFerry only operates in around 35 London postcodes today, the story could be very different tomorrow.

FoodFerry (http://www.foodferry.co.uk) e-mail: sales@foodferry.co.uk; tel: 0171-498 0827; fax: 0171-498 8009.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot