Supermarkets today have woken up to the fact that we don't all want to spend Saturday morning battling with the weekly shop. Having spent years perfecting techniques to lure us into their superabundant aisles, they appear to be undermining their raison d'etre by going virtual. Rather than lull us into a Stepford Wives-style reverie, in the hope we'll splash out on impulse buys, they are competing to provide the most efficient home-shopping service via phone, e-mail, fax or Internet.
Give your local supermarket your precise, impulse-buy-proof shopping list and your goods will be delivered to your home, or office, at whatever time suits. Iceland, Sainsbury, Somerfield, Tesco and Waitrose are just some of the supermarkets offering, or poised to offer, home-shopping services.
Food retailers are in on it, too. Fortnum & Mason, for example, sells its epicurean delights on the Net as well as by phone and fax.
But aren't supermarkets shooting themselves in the foot by effectively discouraging customers from entering their stores, with all their temptations to buy on impulse?
Helen Bridgett, marketing manager of Tesco Direct, disagrees. Backing the pleasures of "dual shopping" (buying online and in-store) she says: "Our stores are still a real asset. Customers like the fact that we have a physical presence. And we've found customers do some [of their] shopping through the Net, freeing themselves to browse in the stores for treats. Combining the two approaches, they can enjoy the overall shopping experience more."
Roger Ramsden, brand development director at Safeway, which is piloting a home-shopping scheme called Easi-Order (launch date to be confirmed), agrees: "Our research shows that customers still like the option of coming to the store to choose certain products, such as fruit and veg, while they are happy for our staff to collate the more mundane groceries. Easi- Order will simply give customers greater flexibility."
So much for the supermarkets' triumphalism. But it was the independent retailers who got there first. London's 10-year-old The Food Ferry Company, for example, saw that only masochists could really relish checkout queues, heavy carrier bags, traffic jams and car-park charges. So its aim, says the director James Millar, became one of taking "the hassle and travel elements out of shopping by offering a fast, easy-to-use service".
A demographic shift is partly responsible for the trend. According to the National Office of Statistics, there are now more working women in the UK than ever before, and many, especially the cash-rich and time- poor, want faster shopping.
Not that all supermarkets are aware of this. Somerfield, for example, whose home-shopping is done by phone and fax only, seems to assume that its typical customer is a mousy, technophobic hausfrau. "We believe Mrs Smith in Stockport is more likely to use a handy catalogue from her supermarket than surf the Net in search for Fido's dog food," says the chief executive, David Simons.
Another advantage of home shopping is the ecological benefit. The Fresh Food Company, which sells organic food, was the first to point it out. James Millar says, "By keeping 10 to 12 customer vehicles away from the car park with every van we send out, we hope we are addressing traffic problems. And reusable crates are better than plastic bags."
Supermarkets adopted home shopping cautiously, but their eagerness to push it now is a sure sign it's the way forward. And they won't have any difficulties promoting it, thanks to a huge fan base - of couch potatoes, eco-warriors and, anyone who dreads checkout queues. Trolley dashes RIP...
VIRTUAL SHOPPING - A BROWSER'S GUIDE
Croydon, Greater London
Mail-order catalogue: 0845 300 7777
Goes on-line later this month, details at www.asda.co.uk
pounds 3.50 (minimum order, pounds 50). Free on orders over pounds 150
Orders placed by 10pm are delivered the next day between 8am and 10pm within an agreed two-hour time slot
Delivery staff help unpack orders and check nothing has been missed
Iceland Foods Home-shopping Service
England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland
Phone: Freefone 0800 328 0800
pounds 4 on all orders
Orders placed by noon are delivered the next day between 10am and 8pm, within an agreed two-hour time slot
A product that's out of stock can be replaced by a larger version of the same thing at no extra cost
Nine stores within the M25 area
pounds 5 on all orders
Next day. Seven days a week, between 12pm and 8pm, within an agreed two-hour time slot
You can create a list of favourite goods to speed up deliveries
Somerfield Direct, incorporating Flanagans
Somerfield Direct: Bristol; Cannock, Staffordshire;
Flanagans: South-west London
Freefone: 0800 056 5300
Flanagans: 0181-877 8000
Somerfield Direct: 16,000; Flanagans: over 6,000
Somerfield Direct: pounds 4 charge (minimum order pounds 25)
Flanagans: pounds 5 on all orders
Next day within a two-hour time slot
Somerfield Direct: between 7am and 9pm, Mon-Sat
Flanagans: between 8am and 10pm, Tues-Sat
You can regularly order with a personalised shopping list (which
you can always modify)
Internet: www.tesco direct.co.uk
25,000-40,000 (depending on store)
pounds 5 on all orders
Next day. Seven days a week, within a two-hour time slot specified by customer (times vary from store to store)
Clubcard customers gain points on-line
England. Office-shopping service which delivers goods to employees of companies signed up to the scheme (so far these include British Airways and Microsoft)
Company intranet, but you can also access Waitrose's
website at www.waitrose.co.uk
Free (minimum order, pounds 5)
Same day. Twice daily, Monday to Friday, approximately 12pm and 5pm
Store promotions, multi-buy offers, recipes and menu ideas appear
THE FOOD FERRY
The Food Ferry
2,500, many of them organic
First order: free delivery. Thereafter between pounds 2 and pounds 6,
depending on length of delivery time
Same day. Between 11am and 9.30pm, Mon-Fri, within
a variety of one- to four-hour slots prearranged by customers
Free delivery to selected streets chosen monthly, and to loyal
FORTNUM & MASON
Fortnum & Mason Mail Order
0845 300 1707
Upwards of 1,000
Variable according to product and destination. Free for
account holders on orders over pounds 40 within the UK
Next-day delivery. Between 8am to 6pm. Surcharge
(varies according to product and area) for goods delivered between 8am and 10pm
Website has highest security levels to ensure orders are confidential
FRESH FOOD COMPANY
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Over 600 (largest range of organic foods in the UK)
Set boxes no charge; bespoke orders, pounds 5
Thursday. 8.30am to 5.30pm. Timed deliveries are billed at
cost. pounds 10 delivery surcharge for Northern Ireland
Will help to locate any organic product not on the website
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