Food fight

How many times have you found yourself pushing a trolley down supermarket aisle after aisle and thought "there must be a better way!"? For most people, the weekly shop is a chore they'd like to avoid. When e-commerce started to boom a few years ago, the Internet looked like a way to dodge this boring task.

Like a lot of other next-greatest-things of the dot-com era, online grocery shopping hasn't set the world on fire. The struggles of two high-profile US online grocers - Webvan and Peapod - deflated a lot of the hype, as did the stalling of plans by online grocers worldwide to rapidly expand their delivery areas.

Webvan (which closed last July), and other companies like it, had a promising business idea: the same starting point as this story, in fact, i.e., that people don't enjoy grocery shopping on the whole. Help people avoid the supermarkets and the business would roll in, it was thought.

The only problem was that to service these customers, grocers needed to build infrastructure such as warehouses and courier systems to get the groceries out to customers. Customers, on the other hand, are price-sensitive when it comes to groceries and, for the most part, are unwilling to pay more than a nominal fee for delivery - which made it hard for companies like Webvan to pay for all their development programs and make a buck after all the venture capital funding was spent.

Most of the local online grocers have kept a much lower profile and followed more modest growth plans. For example, the sites we look at here stick to fairly limited delivery zones.

Just because you can shop online for groceries, it doesn't mean you'll get a better deal - in terms of either price or time. To get an idea of what savings could be made and the trade-offs you'll need to make to get them, we shopped using the same list at four online grocers that deliver to Sydney. We then compared the results to the same shopping basket at a real-world supermarket (a Coles store in a northern Sydney suburb), along with online grocers in Adelaide and Brisbane for good measure.

If a product on our list wasn't available at a store (which happened a lot; read on for more details) we swapped in a comparable product. We also requested delivery after 5:00 p.m., since we considered a good number (but not all, of course) of the people attracted to online grocers may work long hours and want to avoid the supermarket round.

The good news is that the price of the shopping basket at the Sydney online grocers was pretty much the same as those found in the real-world supermarket - one was even a little over $2 cheaper. The price of individual groceries was surprisingly similar. Nescafe Blend 43, 150g size, for example, was priced at $6.49 in all the Sydney options - online or real-world.

The prices at the Coles store were almost exactly the same as those on the Coles site, with the margarine being the only thing to cost less online - by 2 cents. If we had shopped at the online store rather than the suburban one, however, we would have paid an extra $13.65 (for delivery).

In fact, when we included delivery (during the peak time after 5:00 p.m.), the price difference between the real-world shop and the online counterparts widened - with the real-world shop between $8.25 and $13.92 cheaper.

You may accept paying a little extra for your groceries for the convenience and if it saves you time. So, can you reasonably expect to spend less time shopping online? Yes and no.

On your first visit to the virtual aisles you'll probably spend a fair amount of time finding the products you want to buy and setting up a shopping list. The actual time you'll need will depend on how you shop. For instance, do you always stick to a list and know what you get every time? If you do, you should be able to fill your trolley in a straightforward way. You can also expect to save time after the initial session setting up the list because you'll be able to use saved trolleys (providing the store has this feature, although most do). You can then just add and delete items to make your new order each week.

If, on the other hand, you trawl through the aisles grabbing what takes your fancy and choosing different items each trip, you probably won't find online shopping satisfying. Not all sites have photos for the products - and if they do, they can be pretty small - and different things won't catch your eye (which may be a good thing!). Also, people who don't pay attention to the sizes or brands of the products they buy may face some trial and error to find the right groceries online.

Online shopping does have advantages over real world shopping, as well as some drawbacks.

For example, most sites have a sidebar with a running total of your shopping so you can see how it adds up. If you aim to stick to a budget for groceries, this could help you keep the weekly shop within limits. However, if you like to read the nutrition panels on products for health or religious reasons, you may have trouble with online shopping (although this may change as sites like Shopfast add this information). For now, people with special diets may need to stick to the brands they know or shop at a supermarket where they can check packaging on the spot.

Many of the sites also offer liquor sales along with groceries and fresh food. Sites that offer this service advise that you'll need someone over 18 to receive the order.

One interesting point with online sites is the ability to quickly see which products have been recalled. We were (naively) horrified by the number of products listed as recalled due to such things as metal filing contamination and the presence of bacteria.

As well as the sites that deliver to Sydney, we priced our shopping list at two other sites: adelaideSquare (www.adelaidesquare.com.au), in Adelaide, and AussieShopper (www.aussieshopper.com.au), which delivers to Brisbane, Ipswitch and the Gold Coast.

Comparing the prices of individual items at these sites with our real-world basket (which may be an apples and oranges comparison, no pun intended), we found prices at these two sites to be significantly higher - $5.69 at adelaideSquare and $12.44 at AussieShopper for the shopping basket, excluding delivery.

Add in delivery and AussieShopper is $21.24 more than our real world shop and $12.99 more than our cheapest online shop in Sydney. With delivery, adelaideSquare costs around the same as our Sydney online shops, even cheaper in one instance.

However, given that supermarket prices can differ state to state and we didn't have a real-world comparison in these regions, these two sites are included for the sake of interest rather than direct comparison with the Sydney sites and supermarket.

Trolleytips

- Use saved shopping list features to save time.

- Many sites have a specials page; check it out if you feel you're missing out on in-store sales.

- If you can, choose off-peak delivery times, but remember the kids won't be able to accept orders if you've bought alcohol.

- If you're unsure about sizes, check items of a similar size in your kitchen cupboards - you don't want a monster-sized jar of something you only use once in a while.

Food finds

If you're looking for something a little unusual, these sites may be of help:

Herbie's Spices

If a recipe calls for an herb or spice you've never heard of, take a spin by Herbie's Spices.

www.simonjohnson.com.au.

The Organic Grocer

This online store has a range of organic vegetables, meat and other products, and delivers to the Sydney metropolitan region.

www.theorganicgrocer.com.au.

The Green Line

Another organic offering - this time for Victorians.

www.thegreenline.com.au.

The Meat Shop

This store's inventory includes aged steaks and free range chicken, as well as pasta and fresh goods, plus free delivery for orders over $40 (Melbourne).

www.themeatshop.com.au.

Electrolley

As well as groceries for Perth residents, this site offers a free, next-day-delivery nappy service.

www.electrolley.com.au.

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Deanne McIntosh

PC World
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