Call me lazy. No, wait: Just call me very busy. That sounds like a much better explanation for why I love having groceries delivered to my front door instead of wasting time dealing with the crazy parking lots, crowded aisles, long checkout lines and heavy supermarket bags myself.
And I’m not the only one. Online grocery shopping service — from in-store pickup for pre-ordered items to same-day home delivery — is booming among convenience-hungry customers.
Granted, it’s still only a tiny part of the $600 billion food-and-beverage business, but some huge companies are betting that we lazy/busy people are a profitable niche that’s about to grow even larger. The market research experts at Packaged Facts estimate that online grocery sales will top $23 billion this year and quadruple to nearly $100 billion by 2019.
National behemoths like Amazon, Wal-Mart and Google have thrown their weight and money into the game, as have regional companies including Relay Foods, which began four years ago in Charlottesville and now serves eight Virginia cities, the Washington metro area, Baltimore and North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham.
Even Washington’s Metro system sees grocery delivery as a potentially lucrative source of revenue. The transit agency reportedly is considering a six-month pilot program in which riders could order groceries online from Giant, and Peapod would deliver them to one of three Metro stops, three days a week.
Not that getting groceries delivered is a brand--new idea. Established companies like Peapod and FreshDirect have been doing it in a limited number of cities for a decade or more. And there was e-grocery company Webvan, which debuted with a splash in 1999, only to crash and burn two years later.
But this time around, companies are taking a different tack. Some, like Google Express and Wal-Mart, are delivering only nonperishable items, doing away with the hassle and expense of having to keep foods safely chilled. AmazonFresh, which tested its delivery system for several years on the West Coast and just recently expanded to Brooklyn and Philadelphia, delivers groceries from its own network of warehouses.
Others, like Instacart and Postmates, partner with such chains as Whole Foods, Harris Teeter andCostco to provide the groceries, which are purchased and then delivered by a fleet of couriers - often in an hour or two. Even the ride-sharing company Uber is offering a 10-minute delivery of what it calls “essentials” for your medicine cabinet or pantry, including batteries, Tylenol, chips, soda, contact lens solution and condoms.
Who uses these services the most? For Relay Foods, it’s “families with younger children who want to skip going to grocery store with toddlers,” says Sarah Yates, the company’s vice president of marketing. Erika Hard, Instacart’s DC manager, says the service is popular with young professionals in the city and single parents and busy families in the suburbs. Plus, “a lot of businesses use us to make Costco runs for parties.”
There are some obvious advantages to paying for someone else to schlep your groceries. Aside from saving you time, gasoline and aggravation, it keeps you from making impulse buys that can drive up your grocery bill. It also can be worth it if it’s hard for you to get around or to manage those heavy shopping bags, as an 80-year-old friend reminded me. And you don’t have to pay for a membership to Costco to get food and wine from there delivered by some of these local services.
But there are also disadvantages. To begin with, it can be expensive. An evening, one-hour grocery delivery from Whole Foods on I Street NW to a friend’s apartment on Van Ness Street NW via Postmates cost me $75: $50 for the grocery items plus a $14.25 delivery fee, a 9 percent service fee and a tip for the affable courier. Also, someone needs to be home to sign for the groceries if your order includes perishables. And if your delivery person breaks the eggs, as my Peapod guy did, he’s not going to bring back another dozen - so you’re still stuck going to the market.
In the Washington area, there are five new grocery delivery services that deliver primarily to those living inside the Beltway, plus one, Klink, that delivers only booze. (Yes, booze! To your door!) We tested all of them, including during the busy Thanksgiving season. Here’s what we found:
Delivery fee: For home delivery, $12 to $15; if picked up at nearby locations, free for orders over $50, otherwise $3; unlimited free deliveries with Relay Doorstep membership for $30 a month.
Specialty: Focuses on healthful and locally sourced foods, meaning you won’t find most of the big, familiar corporate name brands. About a third of its 8,000 products are from local suppliers. The company plans to add recipes and menu planning to its Web site next year.
Pros: Easy-to-use Web site. Good selection of organic and specialty-diet products (gluten-free, dairy-free); one of few services delivering to communities outside the Beltway.
Cons: Delivers only Monday through Friday; no same-day delivery, but most orders delivered the next day.
Glitches: Order placed at noon Friday for Reston address could be delivered only on Tuesday; delivery person arrived 30 minutes early, so no one was home yet.
Delivery fee: This recipe site partners with Peapod to deliver groceries. Peapod charges $9.95 for orders under $75, $8.95 for orders up to $100 and $7.95 for orders over $100; $60 minimum order; new customers get free delivery on first order.
Specialty: A tested, curated selection of easy recipes plus menu-planning tools to help families more easily provide home-cooked meals.
Pros: You can customize your weekly menus; good selection of recipes.
Cons: Confusing Web site; partnered with Peapod so restricted to products available at Giant, which doesn’t always carry all recipe ingredients.
Glitches: Peapod delivered broken eggs; Giant didn’t have the halibut needed for one of the recipes.
Delivery fee: First order free; for orders of $35 or more, $5.99 for one-hour delivery, $3.99 for two-hour. For orders under $35, $9.99 for one-hour, $7.99 for two-hour. Free delivery for orders over $35 with Express membership of $99 a year.
Specialty: Fast, flexible delivery times, even up to midnight depending on the hours of the store you’re ordering from.
Pros: Easy-to-use Web site; one-hour, two-hour or same-day delivery; choice of six area grocery stores: Whole Foods, Yes! Market, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Costco and Magruder’s.
Cons: Some items can be marked up 20 percent; no delivery outside the Beltway.
Glitches: None. One of the easiest order and delivery experiences of those we tested.
Delivery fee: $4.99 for orders over $15, $7.99 for orders under $15; for Google Express members ($10 a month or $95/year) free same-day or overnight delivery on orders over $15, $3 for those under $15.
Specialty: In addition to nonperishable groceries from Giant and Costco, delivers from other stores including Barnes & Noble, Walgreens, Kohl’s and Staples.
Pros: Delivers daily within a four-hour window up to 10 p.m.; nonperishables only, so groceries can be left outside your door.
Cons: Need eggs and milk? You’re out of luck.
Glitches: None. Even sent two people to deliver entire order because one item was available only at another store.
Delivery fee: Starts at $5 and goes up, depending on distance traveled and demand. (Ours came to $14.25). There’s also a 9 percent service fee.
Specialty: Postmates uses a smartphone app and a network of couriers to offer one-hour delivery of groceries, as well as items from restaurants and retail stores. In our area, groceries can be ordered from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
Pros: Delivers daily and within an hour of ordering; once a courier has accepted your order, their name and photo pops up on your phone, and you can track their progress on a map.
Cons: The fees can add up. A $50 order at Whole Foods became $75 once the peak-time delivery fee, service fee and tip were added.
Glitches: Nothing major. Delivery time was a little over an hour, probably because the courier had to make some substitutions for items that were shown on the app but weren’t available in the store. Still, she made sure we got everything on the list.
Delivery fee: $3.87 on a $20 minimum order.
Specialty: Klink sells beer, wine, liquor, soft drinks, mixers and ice to District residents age 21 and older.
Pros: There’s no mark-up on prices; it’s a great way to get booze for a party delivered promptly.
Cons: For wine, in particular, the selection is somewhat limited.