SECTION E: CYBER SHOPPER - The man on the Sainsbury's helpline was explaining why groceries bought on the internet weren't always delivered on time: drivers failed to turn up for work, got lost, had accidents. 'If we could eliminate the organic beings fro

by STEPHEN COOK, a freelance journalist. Contact him
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The man on the Sainsbury's helpline was explaining why groceries bought on the internet weren't always delivered on time: drivers failed to turn up for work, got lost, had accidents. 'If we could eliminate the organic beings from the system, life would be a lot simpler,' he said.

It sounded rather sinister, but I knew what he meant. The fantasy of e-tail - mechanical, swift, efficient - tends to come to grief when it meets the real world of human fallibility, road works and rain.

But when I entered the e-tail supermarket myself, these expectations were turned on their head. It was the machines that were a disappointment and the people who acquitted themselves rather well. The sites were confusing, the pages loaded like geriatric snails, and the message 'This programme has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down' was engraved, slowly and painfully, on my heart. The people, on the other hand, were great: they answered the phones on the helpdesks and the van drivers hit their slots, despite traffic jams and foul weather.

My biggest mistake, though, was to think it would be easy - that I could just go online one night, knock up a list and have it delivered the next morning. After an hour and three-quarters lurching and bumping around a number of slow web sites, I'd got precisely nowhere. A lot of practice, planning and discipline is needed to make this system work, which perhaps explains why no more than 250,000 of Tesco's 14 million shoppers use the internet, even though the cost is only pounds 5 per order.

First, there's the two-hour delivery slot. Naturally, everyone wants Fridays and Saturdays, so you've either got to book your slot several days ahead or adjust your shopping rhythm away from the weekend. If you book in advance, you can't always anticipate what you'll have run out of or how many are coming for Sunday lunch.

Sainsbury's offers the best solution: it allows you to top up your order until 9pm on the evening before the delivery slot. Some people book a slot up to three weeks ahead, put a pint of milk into it, then add a mountain of stuff the night before. It answers the unavoidably last-minute nature of grocery shopping, but it must be a huge headache for the stores.

I found that I couldn't add to my order electronically because my earlier pint-of-milk order had already been taken off the system by the store that was going to deliver it. I ended up dictating the large additional order to a woman on the helpline, who took it down by hand and then faxed it to the store. She was charming about it, in a resigned sort of way, but if pleasing the customer is the name of the game, Sainsbury's should iron out the problems in this flexible system.

The other big question is whether you compose your list online or offline.

At Sainsbury's you can order only online, which means your phone bill mounts steadily as your baked beans move, with agonising slowness, into the electronic basket. It took me 35 minutes for a 20-item list. Sainsbury's bigger server, launched in April, has had teething problems, cutting off shoppers mid-list.

You can order online with Tesco too, but it also offers a CD, which means you are online for two short bursts only - one to log in and update the list of products sitting in your PC, the second to put through your completed order. In between the two connections, you make up your list offline, skipping rapidly from page to page: only 15 minutes for my 20-item list.

Neither system works satisfactorily yet and my preference would be for one that combines the flexibility of Sainsbury's with the offline facility of Tesco. But sitting in an office clicking on Hellman's Mayonnaise, Squeezy Bottle 340ml, or Ben & Jerry's Dairy Ice Cream, Dilbert's World Totally Nuts 500ml, did get a bit sterile. I wanted to squeeze that bottle, look at the silly label - even on a Saturday morning.

Tesco is interested in developing a device that will give you the scent of bread or coffee as you browse and click, but can it be a substitute for getting into the real world and rubbing trolleys with all those other imperfect, organic beings?


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