The internet's a great place for browsing, but when it comes to the weekly shop, dare you put your money where your mouse is? Jenni Muir takes her grocery list to the cybermarket

While we fire off emails with the speed of a sharp-shooter, when it comes to food shopping online, it's still a case of buyer beware. Finding suppliers of tempting treats on the internet is easy enough. Placing an order confident in the knowledge that it will be received, acted upon and delivered swiftly is an entirely different matter. The problem is that many food companies got all hyped up about getting on the net without carefully considering the needs of potential customers, or whether or not they really wanted to take responsibility for fulfilling orders themselves.

While we fire off emails with the speed of a sharp-shooter, when it comes to food shopping online, it's still a case of buyer beware. Finding suppliers of tempting treats on the internet is easy enough. Placing an order confident in the knowledge that it will be received, acted upon and delivered swiftly is an entirely different matter. The problem is that many food companies got all hyped up about getting on the net without carefully considering the needs of potential customers, or whether or not they really wanted to take responsibility for fulfilling orders themselves.

The result is that you can place an order with what's otherwise a highly esteemed and successful manufacturer, only to find that their enthusiasm for e-commerce has waned since their site was launched and they rarely check their orders. They may not deliver in your area, and not tell you, while you're arranging to take the morning off work to receive a box that will never arrive. Or the company may be so new that they haven't started trading properly yet and, now that they've spent all their money designing a groovy site, they may be struggling to get fully underway.

A good site will confirm your order and give you an indication of the delivery date and time within 24 hours. A better site will offer a delivery service that fits your lifestyle. You should still think before you click. How are you going to receive the parcel if you're at work? What happens if it's fresh or frozen food and the parcel is taken back to a depot in deepest Surrey? Ultimately, internet food shopping is mail order shopping, and if you didn't like it back in the 20th century, you're unlikely to find it more convenient now that you're on line.

People in rural areas probably have most to gain. It's tough trying to indulge a love of Japanese cuisine when the closest your local store comes to soba or sashimi is prawn-flavoured Pot Noodle. Allergy sufferers can have trouble finding spelt loaves or gluten-free breads at the local bakery – if indeed they have one.

The following recommendations are a good starting point but, before you log on, do bear in mind that we tend to get the retailers we deserve. If your local deli has fine cheeses and charcuterie, if the butcher round the corner has carefully sourced meat, or a nearby market offers a good range of fresh fruit and vegetables, shop with them. It is extremely unlikely that ordering such items online will work out cheaper or more convenient, and our high streets, particularly independent retailers, need custom if they are to stay open.

Specialities

The internet offers several good options for sourcing speciality foods – for the culinarily experimental or the culinarily restricted. Clearspring.co.uk offers artisan-produced Japanese noodles and an extensive range of miso, as well as several unusual lines (millet amakase anyone?) for those into wholefoods and macrobiotics.

Goodnessdirect.co.uk has probably the largest range of esoteric health foods on earth plus the willingness to hunt down what they don't have.

For those fondly-remembered tastes of Britain, visit Food40.co.uk where you'll find lardy cakes, laver bread, boar, pickled cockles and Cornish wines. The potted shrimp from James Peet are highly recommended.

Marchents.com has many tempting lines, at a premium price, as does Food from Britain's portal: speciality-foods.co.uk. The problem with all three of these companies is that the products come direct from the manufacturers, so even if you do "one big shop" at the site, parcels of individual items will arrive in dribs and drabs, not so bad if you have a cute postman but multiplying the potential for frustration and inconvenience.

Star site

Italy's Esperya.com is not so much an e-commerce site as the brightly-lit future of fine food retailing. It's one of the few food websites with genuine points of difference from local delis or the gourmet sections of supermarkets. In tune with the Slow Food ethos, all Esperya's food is artisan produced to the highest standards with respect for traditional farming and manufacturing methods. Informative articles on the site explain the heritage and production of each item and, in my experience, customer service is excellent.

Plan a sizeable order and the delivery charge (around a tenner by DHL refrigerated overnight courier from Italy) works out almost as a bargain. The cheese and meat come from rare breeds, buffalo mozzarella is delivered within two days of milking the cattle (you can't beat that, Jamie), there is a fascinating range of olive oils and esoteric air-dried tuna products – even, should this make your mouth water, cured cow's udder. Beware the soft Sicilian pistachio nougat. It is way too good.

Supermarkets

As the supermarkets battle it out for market share, when it comes to online grocery shopping the choice is between the big two: Tesco.com or Sainsburystoyou.com. The sites, though different, are roughly equal in terms of ease-of-ordering, and the usability, like their product ranges, is really a matter of personal preference. Chez Muir, Tesco has yet to beat Sainsbury's for efficiency and service (and Tesco's phone helpline makes me want to scream), but it may well be different in other areas. If you're in a position to choose, try both and judge for yourself.

Organics

Apart from one piece of yellowing broccoli for which they have now been forgiven, I have always found SimplyOrganic.net excellent, and convenient as you can book your preferred delivery time, a must for anyone with a career, places to go, people to see. They liaise with customers regarding unavailable items ("Would you mind terribly if we swapped the nectarines for peaches?") and the range is extensive – it really is an online supermarket that just happens to be organic. When it comes to online organic box schemes, where a collection of seasonal fruit, vegetables or salad arrives pre-chosen, I'm a little sorry to say I've so far found Waitrose.com to be superior to independent suppliers for freshness, quality, service and ease of ordering. It's not the cheapest though, by quite a margin, and someone will have to wait indoors to receive the boxes.

Independent readers can purchase the latest paperback edition of Jenni Muir's 'The Good Web Guide to Food' for £4 including postage and packing, (it's usually £7.99 without postage). Order from the credit card hotline: 020-7261 9382 or from the website: www.thegoodwebguide.co.uk or send a cheque to The Good Web Guide Ltd, 21 Broadwall, London SE1 9PL. The guide helps you avoid search engines and get straight to the information and services you are looking for. Once you have the book, register online for access to new and updated reviews.

Comments