The plans reveal a growing acceptance by supermarkets that a market for home grocery shopping exists. It follows Tesco's announcement last month that it is to extend its Internet shopping service to five new stores after a successful trial in west London.
Maureen Mitchell, head of Sainsbury's consumer direct division said: "From our internal studies we think that up to 20 per cent of people could be interested in some form of home shopping. A year ago we felt that figure might be just 5-10 per cent."
Sainsbury's has been running an "order and collect" service at its Watford store since last September and will now extend the scheme to two more stores in London and two outside the capital, possibly in Manchester and Birmingham.
The scheme involves participants visiting the store with a shopping consultant who helps them develop a personal shopping catalogue of all the items they are ever likely to buy. With that catalogue, which is created by scanning in the products' bar codes, customers then phone or fax their orders in along with any special instructions. A Sainsbury's "surrogate shopper" picks and packs the goods for storage. The customer then visits the store at a pre-arranged time to collect the goods, parking in special bays outside the store. The charge for the service is pounds 2.
"The response we have had in Watford is incredible," Sainsbury's said. "We initially offered the service to 200 shoppers but now have a waiting list."
Though shoppers at the Watford stores cannot yet have goods delivered to their home, Sainsbury's has this month started testing the system in the Solihull area with a home delivery option.
"We think that customers in the future will want to be given choice," Maureen Mitchell said. "Many of our customers lead very busy lives and in response to their requests we are looking at ways of making grocery shopping as quick and easy as possible."
Sainsbury's has also been running an Internet office shopping trial with Hewlett Packard in Bracknell. A hundred staff order their goods via the Internet. They can order from the full 20,000 product lines available at the local store and choose from a number of 15-minute delivery slots. The goods are delivered to the offices from the local SavaCentre in Calcot between 4.30-6pm. Though the Hewlett Packard trial is free, the service to external customers is likely to carry a pounds 4 charge.
An Internet option is likely to offered to customers at the Watford store. However, further office shopping trials have been ruled out for the time being.
One of the key problems for supermarket groups is how to organise the logistics of delivery to customers, particularly of chilled and frozen goods.