Web Chat: Buying groceries online surprisingly simple

Few things digital are as easy as the high-tech world would have you believe.

Online shopping has been advertised as the next big thing, but let's face it, sometime it's just easier - and cheaper - to go down to the store and buy something. You might not be able to do it in your underwear, but at least you get out of the house.

I've tried the Web for clothes shopping, with miserable results. A shirt and a pair of shorts were both mailed in the wrong size. I tried bidding on airline tickets, but after compromising what I was willing to pay several times, I called up an airline and got a better deal.

Book buying is where I feel I've had a measure of success. Companies like Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com warehouse nearly every book in print and allow buyers to share reviews. Two problems persist, however: Shipping and handling can be as expensive as the book, and the aesthetic of flipping through the pages is irreplaceable.

So, with few online shopping experiences under my belt, I came to learn about a new feature offered by Internet giant Priceline.com.

What started as a company that first put tickets for under-booked trips up for bid, has since branched into sales of many retail goods and services.

The latest offering, believe it or not, is online bidding for groceries. Colleague Rex Bovee had an interest in writing a story about this techno-marvel, so I volunteered to be his guinea pig.

"Online shopping for groceries? No way. Too hard. Too tedious," I thought.

Sometimes it is an overwhelming process to buy a compact disc online, so I decided to take this experience with a grain of salt.

Ironically, grocery shopping is one of the easiest e-commerce experiences I have had. It's made this way by a cleverly designed bidding and payment system.

First of all, the shopper has to pick up a Priceline WebHouse club card. In our area, the only grocery store that works through this system is Smith's on Highway 50 East.

Next, sit down at the computer, sign up by following a few simple steps, and go through grocery lists to find what you need.

The site will give the shoppers different options for brand names and a pricing structure where the odds that the bid will be accepted appear next to the price. For a $3 item, a $2 bid might have a 50 percent chance of acceptance.

Once the electronic 'cart' is filled with bids for groceries, shoppers proceed to checkout by submitting the bids and paying by credit card for the ones that are accepted. All of my bids - ranging from 50 percent to 98 percent chance of acceptance - were accepted. I typed in the number of my WebHouse card and it was credited.

At this point, my skepticism piqued for an instant. Priceline took my personal information and credit card number and put it into storage for my future online use. This should be an option, not a necessity.

Checkout could not have been easier when I got to Smith's later that afternoon. In 10 minutes I gathered the six items on my list, took them to the checker, and swiped my card. Because the store did not have the Colombo brand of yogurt in stock, I substituted Dannon. The Smith's computer compensated and allowed for the substitution without any delays.

In all I paid $10.77 for what would have been more than $20 worth of groceries.

It turns out that grocery shopping online makes sense, especially for someone with a simple diet (selection is limited).

It's another sign that the future is online, especially for me.

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Ideas? Feedback? Contact me at jimscripps@tahoe.com


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