Buying bananas, milk and chicken online has little in common with adding shoes, a cellphone or books to an electronic shopping cart. Books can sit on the stoop for a few hours, cellphones don't melt, and in all but extreme circumstances, no one waits at home for two hours hoping the delivery van pulls up with a box of shoes.
The differences add up to dismal online sales for grocers, who have so far been left behind by the e-commerce revolution. But reluctant shoppers may finally be coaxed to point, click and scroll their way through their grocery lists as big-name stores have figured out an innovative technique, called "click and collect," to meet them halfway—literally.
Grocery shopping has struggled to gain a footing online since the dawn of the Internet. There have been celebrated failures, such as Webvan. And there have been consumer frustrations—waiting for the grocery truck all afternoon can feel a lot like waiting for the cable guy.
Outside a few urban areas, such as New York, and some regional exceptions, e-groceries have largely been as popular as rotten tomatoes. That might finally be changing as U.S. grocers turning toward a model that's a hit in Europe.
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Rather than wait for a delivery van, online shoppers select items on a store's website and then set up a time to rendezvous with their purchases at a designated pickup center. In the past 12 months, the Stop & Shop and Giant grocery chains have set up 70 such locations in the Northeast with delivery partner Peapod. Specialty food stores such as Harris Teeter are also experimenting with click and collect.
Shoppers enjoy no delivery charges and no time wasted waiting at home. The stores boast that customers don't even have to get out of their cars, as grocery bags are loaded right into the trunk.
The chains like the concept because pickup centers—some tucked neatly inside branded gas stations—can be set up at a tiny fraction of the cost of a store, and give the company a presence in new neighborhoods. It also cuts down dramatically on delivery costs, and less moving around also reduces damage to the merchandise.