Off their cybertrolley

Tim Moore attempts the weekly shop on Tesco's experimental Internet shopping service
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Being cold-called at eight in the evening doesn't normally offer anything more exciting than a welcome opportunity to be rude to strangers without feeling guilty about it, but there was something about the portentous tone of the woman from Tesco Direct that hinted at grander vistas.

This wasn't merely a pilot supermarket Internet home-shopping scheme. Here, she implied, was a chance to mould the future of urban society - to be one of just 500 pioneers casting aside the tyranny of the trolley to contemplate a brave new commercial dawn. The demise of the British aisles. You have nothing to lose but your chain stores. How could I refuse? It would be like having electric lighting in your home in 1880. Or maybe a Betamax video in 1980.

My handbook to the vanguard of the consumer revolution arrived in the form of a CD-ROM containing details of the full 20,000 or so lines on sale at Tesco's Osterley superstore in west London, and a glossy brochure. "Specially-trained `shoppers' select only the finest and freshest products," they trumpet, keen to assure the paranoid that the scheme is not a cynical ploy to fob off trusting home-bound cybershoppers with bags of stained cod knuckles labelled as smoked salmon.

It soon became apparent that one would be placing a great deal of trust in the special training of these shoppers. The CD-ROM contained no illustrations of products, merely an unwieldy alphabetical list of often enigmatic descriptions. It would require a really very special kind of shopping training to teach one to look for Rennies under G for Gastrointestinal. Sausages are filed under Haggis, and most people's idea of orange juice - the basic one- litre cartons - is not listed along with the monstrously extravagant freshly- squeezed varieties that dwell in Juice Orange. It is only after several minutes of fumbling lateral thought that one chances upon Juice Pure Longlife. And although I eventually deduced that "B/e" denoted "Birds Eye", this only partially satisfied my curiosity regarding "B/e Bakers Bis Vegetableprov Plaits 290g".

There is a search tool, but it is a somewhat over-zealous assistant. Type in "ham" and you are presented with an unending list comprising the likes of "Chambourcy Hip-pota Mousse Strw 4pk 250g" and "Dentinox Cradle Cap Treatment Shampoo".

Worst of all, it does not let you search for biscuits by price per 100g or look for lager sorted by alcohol:price ratio. Hopes that my Zen-like approach to frugality would be satisfied by letting my PC probe Tesco's database for "horrible little month-old artichoke stubs stuck in a bin- liner and yellow-stickered down to 15p which my girlfriend will discover me trying to make into some sort of soup and throw straight into the bin" were cruelly dispelled.

Computer home grocery-shopping is not aimed at those who are born shoppers, but those who have shopping thrust upon them. People who don't like supermarkets, or bargains, or food, and whose narrow aesthetic horizons are not likely to be clouded when the wine they ordered blind turns out to come in a purple bottle with a picture of a naked clown on the label.

It is for people who think nothing of the pounds 5 delivery charge that Tesco imposes or the lost opportunity of filling up with cut-price supermarket petrol. People whose shopping list is determined, bizarrely, by what they need - "2 Chick Thgh Portns" and a "big B/e Bis Plait" - rather than what happens to be on special offer that week regardless of its utility.

One can all too easily imagine just these sorts of go-getting, plugged- in, wired-up, busy-busy 21st-century professionals being discussed in Tesco Direct marketing meetings, but whether they will ever actually use the service is another matter. People who have the misfortune to access the Internet on a regular basis know just how utterly useless it is in terms of speed and reliability. Even assuming you manage to rig up the software to run it without joining the extortionate service provider CompuServe (as Tesco would like you to), you are still facing a Sisyphean task. After devoting over three hours compiling a debut shopping list and attempting to key in my credit card number, I telephoned the Kilmarnock- based helpline in despair.

"You're having problems sending the order? Well, it could be a number of things." Having established that I probably hadn't erroneously pressed the "Cancel Order" button over and over again or absent-mindedly microwaved the CD-ROM, we arrived at the final - and presumably most distant - possibility. "Have you entered a comment in the box?" Well, yes I had. I'd asked for most of my 31b of bananas to be unripe, actually. "No - I mean in every box. For every product you ordered." Every product? I'd be scraping the barrel a bit. "Jn West Tuna Fiks 14sg - I like to eat this maritime product." "Tesco Wsh-Up Liq Conc Lem Fresh 500ml - Could I have a full bottle of this without any spiders in?"

But no. Tesco had not been inspired by rampant corporate curiosity. There was some farcically basic bug in the software which meant you had to laboriously type something - anything - in the comment box assigned for each product.

The order was eventually dispatched on Saturday afternoon, but I was mildly irked to find that I had to wait until Tuesday for delivery, which I can imagine the plugged-in go-getters using as an excuse to showcase their Type-A behavioural extremes. And when it did arrive, I discovered Tesco's shoppers had obviously just been doing the Creative Expression module of their special training. I got cafetiere coffee instead of filter, a substitute frozen pizza slightly larger than my freezer and umpteen premium branded goods in place of many of my beloved own-brands. All the bananas flaunted their flaccid middle-age in defiance of my request. Most entertainingly of all, my little packet of sliced ham had by some freak of technological Chinese whispers been transformed into a great shank of pork of the type normally seen outside dogs' kennels in Tom and Jerry.

So for the time being, as dawns go, it's rather cold and dark here at the frontier of home shopping. But there are satisfactions. The banal errors show a cheering human touch that is unlikely to be eradicated by the faceless forces of technocracy. And having already saved the planet two car journeys, I have started speculating upon parallel schemes to reduce other sources of unnecessary travel. The school run, for instance, is surely doomed as our merry dash towards permanent curtains-drawn domestic exile gathers pace: work from home, shop from home... why not learn from home, with fleets of specially-trained teachers dispensing mobile education to order? Special offer: Take "2 Geog Hmwrk" now and get a free "Slap Corpri Punshmnt Ex Firm"n

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