Have online grocers or drug stores become practical?
June 9, 2005 10:11 AM   Subscribe

I live in Los Angeles, and I was wondering whether online grocers or drugstores have become practical, cost-effective, or actually convenient yet. I figure the day will probably come when ordering baking soda or toothpaste online makes more sense than driving to the store. How far away is that day?
posted by sdis to Shopping (12 answers total)
Drugstore.com rocks. I used it all the time in Washington DC, and the stuff arrived usually within 2 days, and if you buy enough (usually just $25-50), the shipping is free. They had lower prices and a much better selection than I found at the local CVS.

I think if you're picky about brands and don't normally just grab whatever shampoo's on sale, it makes total sense. (Though Drugstore.com does have generic brands as well, if I recall correctly.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:22 AM on June 9, 2005

I should probably also note that I work at home, so being around for the delivery was not an issue. I have often wondered how well these perishable/immediate-need deliveries work for people who aren't home all day.
posted by occhiblu at 10:24 AM on June 9, 2005

We order our groceries online, despite the fact that we live within 5 minutes walk of three grocery stores in NYC. Primarily because I can feel my blood pressure rising from the moment I walk into a supermarket in this town -- they are too small and crowded and full of assholes (including me, the only time I ever swore at a stranger was in a grocery store) and the produce is much fresher from our vendor.
posted by gaspode at 11:09 AM on June 9, 2005

I used Webvan pretty religiously for about a year and a half, and I know Safeway and Albertson's now offer similar services here in the SF Bay, though I haven't tried them. You can specify a delivery window--Webvan was 30 minutes--and I'm sure they're small enough to solve the "When am I home?" problem. The advantage basically was being able to shop right when I thought of something, and then placing an order when critical mass was right. Time savings as well, and Webvan was always top quality stuff. Oh, and not having to carry things in was HUGE. Kind of like having a personal shopper.

There are also produce delivery services, like Organic Express, that might be useful. Not sure about LA area.

Today, I abuse Amazon Prime for many drugstore needs; free 2-day 1-click shipping on your $4 bottle of mouthwash is kind of handy. I have used drugstore.com in the past, but building up enough to get the free shipping isn't always that easy, and more than 2 days for shipping excludes some purchases.
posted by trevyn at 11:14 AM on June 9, 2005

Being car-free, we do as much shopping online as possible. I've ordered groceries online for as long as the service has been available, and have been mostly very happy. I used Webvan when they were in the area, as well as Safeway and Albertsons. My most important factor is substitutions or changes to my order. If I find a store is subbing or skipping an item too often, I'll switch. Right now Albertson's is doing a good job of getting my order to me with few problems.

It is certainly much less stressful, and less of a timesuck than going to the store myself. I hope I never go back to in-person shopping.
posted by frykitty at 11:32 AM on June 9, 2005

It's a pretty safe bet that there is no way to deliver small quantity, small value orders to widely distributed locations at the same price as local retail stores, and certainly not for same-day or next-day delivery. For example, for drugstore.com, the cost of goods is probably on the order of 50%, meaning that a $10 order provides only $5 to cover shipping, warehouse costs (picking and boxing the item), credit card charges, administrative costs, marketing, and a host of other things. So if UPS wants (say) $7 to deliver the package on the next day, the (hypothetical) company is already $2 in the hole.

So why (and how) does amazon.com or drugstore.com or others offer free shipping on orders as low as (say) $25? First, Jeff Bezos has said repeatedly that he is willing to sacrifice profitability for market share. Second, you're not going to get the package on the next day - in fact, if you order a book from Amazon, it may be five or more business days before it arrives (free of shipping charges). Third, Amazon and others hope that you'll place larger (more profitable) orders, as well as recommend the brand (as occhiblu has done) to others (saving on marketing costs).

In short, the Internet does very little to reduce the costs of moving atoms (merchandise), as webvan.com and others demonstrated. Nor is there any reason to think the cost of moving atoms will go down in the future. The retail store is, for better or worse, the least expensive way to sell small quantities of a wide variety of items to a large number of people.

Which isn't to say that a lot of people won't chose to have groceries or other items delivered, and either (a) meet a minimum order size or (b) pay extra for the delivery. Convenience is a major factor in buying decisions. But the economics dictate that Wal-Mart is going to be in business for a long, long time, selling stuff out of big boxes.
posted by WestCoaster at 12:03 PM on June 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Zifty (a Kozmo clone) in Atlanta is thriving and, I think, profitable. I heard that a company called PDQ was delivering groceries and convenience store items out west somewhere. I can't seem to google anything up... so maybe they're gone?

I think that having an order minimum is key to the survival of a delivery company. There's got to be some profit in driving to your house to give you stuff. So the cost of driving needs to be amortized across a bunch ($10? $20?) of stuff.

On preview: westcoaster edges me out...
posted by zpousman at 12:24 PM on June 9, 2005

I think Webvan would have done well if they hadn't gotten the idea that they should be all things to all people and expand like crazy. The original HomeGrocer.com was doing pretty well and when Webvan bought them out, they proceeded to run HG into the ground. It was frustrating.

When HG was active here in Seattle, I can tell you it was already more practical, cost-effective, and convenient for me to use it. It saved time, it saved money (not as many impulse buys, etc.), and I could shop in the middle of the night and then find the groceries waiting at my door later.

Unfortunately Safeway.com has been useless for me -- they are always out of the things I want, but I never find out until the delivery arrives, so I end up having to go to the store anyway. And they require a $150 minimum for free shipping (as opposed to the $75 at Home Grocer when they were around), which is not practical for weekly shopping for 2 people. I just don't spend that much. And their produce is not good like HG's was.

I wonder how the new homegrocer.com folks, who bought the rights to the name, are doing. They only operate in SoCal, but I wish they'd come up here.
posted by litlnemo at 3:05 PM on June 9, 2005

As far as I can tell, ever since Webvan went from 30-minute delivery windows to 1-hour, then eventually 2-hour delivery windows, grocery delivery has been less useful. I've taken advantage of both Safeway (terrible product selection) and Albertson's (terrible timeliness) and been mostly disappointed. Both services have huge delivery windows, and Albertson's in particular has never managed to actually deliver during the promised time.

Basically, as soon as Webvan expanded beyond the Bay Area, they started to suck. Everyone else has failed to meet the high standard they set during that brief, non-sucking time.
posted by majick at 4:30 PM on June 9, 2005

Today, I abuse Amazon Prime for many drugstore needs; free 2-day 1-click shipping on your $4 bottle of mouthwash is kind of handy.

Wait - I thought Amazon Prime only applied to products sold directly by Amazon. Wouldn't mouthwash be a Target.com (or other partner) product?
posted by gd779 at 6:08 PM on June 9, 2005

Basically, as soon as Webvan expanded beyond the Bay Area, they started to suck. Everyone else has failed to meet the high standard they set during that brief, non-sucking time.

Webvan never made any money. Never. Ever. They were unprofitable from the start. They built highly specialized warehouse/shipping facilities (with cold storage, automation for sorting canned goods, etc.) that weren't justified by their volume (or efficiencies). In short, they got a huge amount of money from their initial public offering, and proceeded to burn through it without any effective business plan. Their expansion just doomed them sooner, but they had to get bigger quickly to prop up their stock price -- they had to show sharply rising sales, since they couldn't show any profits.

Webvan: "a classic example of PAYING more for products than they were SELLING them for"
posted by WestCoaster at 6:09 PM on June 9, 2005

Organic Express (linked above) delivers in the LA area and is convenient if you don't live/work near a good produce market. If you're not there to accept it your order is left at your door in a cardboard box. So I had the stuff sent to my mom's place instead of mine and we found the quality and variety to be nice.
posted by PY at 7:23 PM on June 9, 2005

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