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Paper, Plastic, Electrons?

By Holli Haerr
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 23, 1997

It always comes down to lettuce.

Sure, you can shop for and buy boxes, bags and foil-packs of all sorts of prepackaged food without budging from your computer keyboard. But are you willing to trust a complete stranger to pick out those precious vegetables?

History (at least in the D.C. area) would suggest not.

Bethesda-based All Things Delivered, the latest such service devoted to the possibility that shoppers here might change their minds, offers online grocery shopping and delivery to the tonier parts of Montgomery County (Potomac, Bethesda, Rockville and parts south) and Northwest D.C. (west of 16th Street NW, plus downtown as far east as 11th Street).

The company also plans to expand into Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax within 12 months. It's been taking online orders since March, although the company dates to 1991.

So how's grocery shopping work online? At ATD's Web site, you click through text-only listings of what's in stock to place your order. ATD delivers orders over $50 free; anything under that will cost $7 extra. It delivers on weekdays from 1 to 9 p.m.; you specify the two-hour window you want your groceries to arrive in.

We found All Things to be a mixed bag. Prices are fair, with strawberries at $1.29 a pint and milk at $2.69 a gallon. But ATD doesn't take manufacturers' coupons. And when we tried it, things like cereal only came in Price Clubesque jumbo sizes, convenient for big families but few others. (Since then, the company has broadened its selection, so you can get your Alpha Bits in a box smaller than 40 ounces.)

You also give up much of the flexibility of picking alternates if the food you want isn't available. Although ATD Vice President Hans Wylder says the firm usually calls customers to ask about substitutions, that didn't happen in our case -- we didn't learn that the fresh salmon we'd ordered was out of stock until our delivery person arrived without it.

On the other hand, we were able to buy bagels, gourmet pasta and plain old milk in a single online "shopping trip," something that might have taken us three trips offline.

The process also rewards repeat shoppers: ATD can track your frequently ordered items, so you don't have to key in regular orders each time. As for the pesky produce issue, the strawberries we ordered were better than any we'd seen this year. Our eggs even arrived intact.

Though there were some technical problems, ATD's record on customer service was mostly good. When one of our orders apparently failed to get through via ATD's site and we called to check, the phone rep was able and willing to reconstruct our order down to the last item.

The company also came through on delivery times, hitting our 1 to 3 p.m. target -- it even called ahead to let us know to expect our orders later in that period, not earlier.

For now, ATD is alone in the market, as Safeway, Giant and Fresh Fields have no plans to offer online shopping here, nor do such Web-groceries competitors as Evanston, Ill.-based Peapod, an eight-city operation that grossed $30 million last year.

The most likely user of ATD -- or any equivalent -- is a stressed-out parent of multiple kids. Mom or Dad will easily top $50 in one order and, given enough kids around, can use a 40-ounce box of cereal. (And since the little ones probably won't eat the lettuce anyway, what difference does it make if a stranger picks it out?)

The big question ATD has yet to answer is how it will get around the fact that the folks most likely to be enthusiastic Web users are often the young, childless folk that this service is least suited to serve.

All Things Delivered.

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