You buy books, plan travel, or invest in stocks online. But you don't purchase your groceries over the Net, right? That makes you a typical Web-surfing consumer. A mere 0.1% of groceries and health-and-beauty items are bought online in the U.S., vs. 4% of airline tickets and books and 9% of software, says New York's Jupiter Communications, which tracks E-business.
Maybe not for long. In recent months, at least four cyberdrugstores have opened their doors. Peapod, the closest thing to a national online grocery service, has moved into Long Island, N.Y., its eighth metropolitan area. Borders Books co-founder Louis Borders will soon launch a rival to Peapod starting in Northern California, while Amazon. com is in talks to join the grocery game as well.
SHOP SMART. Still, the pitfalls for consumers are many --from hefty delivery charges to produce that doesn't measure up. So how do you save time without wasting money? First, figure out why you would want to do your shopping over the Net. That will help you determine which sites to skip and which ones you'll visit regularly.
If you want to save money, forget about buying food online. Specialty Web sites, such as Whole Foods Market's (www.wholefoods.com), can track down hard-to-find products. But the items are rarely cheap, and Whole Foods tacks on a $5 shipping charge, plus $1 per pound, for orders of less than $70. Peapod, a more traditional grocer, delivers goods by van. Most families will pay about $7 per delivery, though if you order every week, the fee can fall to $5 (table).
Online pharmacies offer better deals and more choices. A good place to start is drugstore.com, which opened in February and is benefiting from the advice of Amazon.com, its largest investor. A BUSINESS WEEK survey of a half-dozen online pharmacies found that drugstore.com is the price leader. An eight-ounce bottle of Robitussin DM cough syrup sells for $6 at drugstore.com, vs. $7.40 at a Chicago supermarket and $6.20 to $7 at other Web sites.
On prescription medications, though, drugstore.com lags behind rivals Soma and PlanetRx in signing up insurers, says Forrester Research analyst Evie Black Dykema. Drugstore.com disputes that, saying they cover about one-third of the U.S. population. Regardless, if you're paying for prescriptions out of pocket, any site will work--and you can save money. Mike Wollaeger, a Los Angeles screenwriter, estimates that he saved 35% off the regular price of his prescription by ordering through drugstore.com. He also liked the convenience. "I didn't have to drive anywhere or wait in line," Wollaeger says. Of course, he did have to wait five days--for drugstore.com to call his doctor and then for delivery. But for medication you buy regularly, setting up an online account can make sense.
The convenience may have you thinking about online food shopping, too, even if it does cost more. For now, online grocers are mostly limited to metropolitan areas. Peapod sells about everything you find in a supermarket--minus alcoholic beverages. It's particularly helpful for bulky items, such as bottled water or paper towels, and prices are comparable with those of nearby stores. But Peapod might not save you much time. I have shopped at Peapod for a few months, and with all the clicking I have to do at the site, rarely have I finished in less than 30 minutes.
LOST IN TRANSLATION. Also be wary of fish and produce if you like to buy based on what item looks the freshest. I was happy with simple vegetables, such as broccoli, but when I ordered bananas and typed a note saying a little green was better than a little brown, I got fruit that resembled the Green Giant in color and Tiny Tim in size.
What about just ordering dry goods and having them shipped? NetGrocer sells only nonperishables, but a visit to the site probably isn't worth your time. Its selection is weak--no Gillette Mach3 razors or Pepsi or Coke--and mailing costs are high. West of the Mississippi, the minimum shipping charge is $14.
As high-speed phone and cable lines become more common, logging on to the Internet to order just a few items will become easier. For the time being, however, you'll need a clear plan and a big order to get the most out of your stroll down the electronic aisle.