This autumn I decided it was time to take the plunge--time to become a truly with-it American and commit to cyberspace by integrating the Internet into one of the most crucial aspects of my life: food.
I signed up with Streamline.com, asking to be part of its initial group of testers as it started offering online shopping and delivery services to Washington area families. I told the company I was a newspaper reporter and would be writing about my experience. (I also swapped stories about the service with a friend of mine who also agreed to be a tester, just to be sure I wasn't getting any special treatment.)
As a working mom, I was intrigued by Streamline.com's promise of a "simpler way of living." It certainly sounded easy: The company installs one of its refrigerators in my garage and stocks it once a week with whatever I order from its online store. It picks up my dry cleaning, delivers videos and drops off film or shoes that need new heels or repairs. It even collects packages I want shipped by United Parcel Service. All for $30 a month (plus the costs of the groceries, dry cleaning, etc.).
At first, I looked forward to every Thursday, the delivery day Streamline assigned to my Arlington neighborhood. My family also couldn't wait to taste the new treats I had selected. Spring Mill Bread Co.'s onion-dill rye bread was so good, it alone was almost worth the price of the monthly service. And the rich chicken-and-corn chowder that Streamline subsequently started offering as part of its line of prepared foods is better than any soup I could make (or order at a fancy restaurant).
As for the fish, I couldn't find much fresher than the salmon fillets provided by ProFish.
Despite the impersonal computer order form between us, Streamline did seem as personal as dealing with the old-fashioned corner store. The delivery men left welcome notes on the refrigerator (and my 11-year-old daughter left mash notes in return). E-mail was sent back and forth weekly regarding service. And about six weeks after service had begun, a special customer-service representative called me to see what Streamline could do better. Giant and Safeway employees have never solicited such advice from me.
But as time went on, I reluctantly came to a sad conclusion. Streamline is not for me--at least not now.
Its offerings, though seemingly vast, are too limited. There hasn't been one week that I haven't had to schlep to the grocery store at least once to pick up items I couldn't get through Streamline.
Now, my trips to the store are much shorter than usual--a blessing, I have to admit. But if you count all the time at my computer placing my order, I still spend as much time, if not more, buying my groceries.
I had been hoping it would be easy to stroll electronically through Streamline's aisles, but the design of its Web site is clumsy. If you know exactly what you want to order week after week, it's easy because you can set up a personal shopping list and then just click on it to order your food and household items. But Streamline is not for the person who wants to browse for new items or meal inspirations.
Also, if you don't click on the "update" box every time you order an item, it won't be on your shopping list and won't get delivered. I learned that the hard way when I didn't get some yogurt I thought I had ordered.
When the customer service representative asked me what could be done better, I specifically complained about the cumbersome shopping process. She acknowledged it was not a user-friendly system but said a new Web site now in design should make things easier. But it was unclear when that would go up, and I've lost my patience trying to navigate the system as it now stands.
Streamline is clearly trying hard to please. I could see that the first day when the truck arrived to drop off my refrigerator. The delivery was about half an hour late, and apologies were profusely offered. Try to get that from the cable company.
Then, after a quick survey of my garage, a technician concluded that he would have to install a new outlet for the refrigerator. I had been warned that would probably happen, so I was not surprised. But I think the technician was. He quickly realized the job wouldn't be easy--he had to run a new wire from the circuit breaker because all other outlets were fully loaded or on a switch that could be inadvertently turned off. And since I live in an old house, special studs were needed to attach the outlet to the masonry walls.
Making matters worse, another technician was having trouble with the garage door opener. Mine was so old, he had to install a new transmitter to respond to both our old transmitters and the new keypad he was placing outside the garage.
It took more than two hours to complete the setup--a bit more than normal, the technicians told me. Still, I was charged only the $50 that Streamline had told me it would cost if I needed a new electrical outlet. Not a bad price, even if I ended up dropping Streamline, because the garage would finally have an electrical outlet, something my husband had always wanted. And the technicians never complained.
There were lots of other sweeteners along the way. The $30 monthly fee was waived for the first two months, and my first $50 of groceries were free. Other Streamline start-up customers were offered the same deal. Periodically, little treats were left as well, including bread, cookies and muffins from Spring Mill Bread Co.
And when I complained that some fresh vegetable soup I had ordered wasn't delivered and that my half-gallon milk cartons leaked week after week, Streamline sent me an "apology with meaning" e-mail that included a $10 credit toward my next order.
That's why I'm sad to leave--such apologies are rare at my local supermarket.
But there are just too many items Streamline doesn't seem to have in stock on certain days. Last Wednesday, I tried to order cooking spray to use for all my holiday baking. I could only find one kind: olive oil cooking spray--not what I wanted to use for butter cookies and gingersnaps. But the next day, browsing through the list of items, I discovered that butter and regular cooking spray were back on Streamline's shelves (and I hadn't even asked for them, as customers are encouraged to do when they don't find what they want).
I could not order brisket last week. There were 21 different kinds of beef to choose from, but no brisket. These are little things, I know. But little things can create big hassles.
The selection seems odd at times. Early on, Streamline carried three different kinds of Greek olives but no plain black or green ones. That changed, though, after I--and perhaps others--asked for ordinary olives.
Streamline doesn't always comply with requests. At the very beginning, I had requested a family favorite--the crisp, refrigerated dill pickles. About two weeks after my request, I received an e-mail saying those pickles would not be stocked. Since I had never signed my name to that request, the e-mail was a bit eerie--reminding me that there is no such thing as privacy to any online grocery shopping. (In fact, another week when I had a hard time completing my order, I talked to a customer service representative who could tell me exactly what the first item I had ordered that week was, what the last was--and the precise order of everything in between).
Even if Streamline carries what you want, it's sometimes hard to find. When I couldn't find garlic under Streamline's subheadings for fresh vegetables, I used the site's search engine to get a list of 48 garlic items (from bread to pizza to cream cheese) before I discovered that a bulb of garlic was listed in "fresh herbs and spices."
The challenges of browsing Streamline's electronic aisles does have one piece of good news: With no impulse buying, the food bills are kept to a minimum.
I suppose that's good, because I am frugal by nature. But I didn't much like it when I wanted black beans. I could order only an organic 16-ounce can for $1.69--about three times the cost of a conventional can of beans I could buy at the store.
Some prices look on the high side, particularly for produce, which is priced on a per-item basis (a red delicious apple is 39 cents; a banana, 25 cents; a cucumber, 35 cents; a green pepper, 70 cents). Also, a dozen large eggs cost $1.29, compared with 99 cents at my local store. Ziploc sandwich bags (100 count) went for $3.29, compared with $2.89 at the store. And, of course, Streamline doesn't accept coupons.
But oftentimes, Streamline's prices ended up below store prices. A box of Celestial Seasonings tea, for example, costs $2.69 at Streamline, $2.80 at my local store. A 64-ounce bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice costs $2.69 at Streamline, $3.29 at the store.
There are other little nagging problems that I had never thought about--and that Streamline can't improve, at least at my house. My garage, for example, is in the basement. That means I have to lug the heavy groceries up a flight of stairs to my kitchen, a chore I don't have to do when I shop at the store myself and enter through the front door.
I've also discovered that, at least for me, it's too hard to think about ordering groceries in the middle of the week. That's when my mind is preoccupied with work and more immediate family issues, such as school meetings and homework to supervise. To get my groceries delivered on Thursday (a date over which I had no choice), I had to make sure I made my list on Tuesday evening so I could order using my fast Internet connection at work on Wednesday. If I waited until the last minute, I could order from home, up until 11 p.m. on Wednesday night, but the slower connection was aggravating.
Ah, so much for my adventure in cyberspace. For now, I guess, you know where to find me on the weekends. In the supermarket. Or in my car on my way to Bethesda for Spring Mill's onion-dill rye bread.
What Streamline.com does so you don't have to . . .
STEP 1: Streamline.com takes your grocery order electronically on the Web.
STEP 2: A warehouse employee--here, Phanta Soko Sackor--retrieves items.
STEP 3: Employees such as manager Dan Rice load the delivery truck.
STEP 4: A driver delivers the order to your refrigerator, as Scott Glaze does here.
Streamline is for you if you . . .
* Abhor grocery shopping and running errands.
* Are very organized and can make detailed grocery lists for the week ahead.
* Are patient and have time during the week to browse through the electronic menu of products.
* Are not overly price-conscious in buying groceries.
* Are content with a limited selection.
Streamline is not for you if you . . .
* Don't have a garage or porch where a refrigerator can be set up to store the weekly delivery of food.
* Like to browse through a supermarket's aisles and see what's new.
* Use coupons and like to stock up on sale items.
* Don't like to make a shopping list and can't plan a week ahead.
* Have no extra time during the week to draw up a list and order food.