“Seriously, mom—is there anything to eat in this house?”
If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me, I’d be a wealthy woman.
I tell you this to help explain exactly how important groceries are in my home. My husband and I have three sons between the ages of 11 and 18. In case you didn’t know, growing boys are among the hungriest people on the planet. Like, bear-after-a-six-month-hibernation hungry, 365 days a year. So it stands to reason that grocery shopping is an enormous part of my life (by choice; I’m the designated shopper in the family).
Sure, I spend a significant chunk of our income on food—dangerously close to a quarter of it. I also spend a significant chunk of time procuring said food—three mostly frazzled hours each week to compile a list, drive to the store, load up my cart, haul it all home, and unpack it. Over the past 18 years that equates to roughly 2,800 hours of time spent on grocery shopping. Even worse is the feeling I’ve had since about 1999 that I could be doing something better with all that time—working, hanging out with my family, or (crazy thought) doing something nice for myself.
Back to that hungry child. It’s 10 on a Wednesday night. I tell him to grab a snack—no, not the whole family-sized bag of Skinny Pop, thank you very much. One. Small. Bowl. Sitting in my sweats with a cold drink by my side (OK, fine. On bad days it’s wine), I consider browsing the MLS for an hour. Maybe Facebook. But instead, resigned, I will do some grocery shopping. Hold on—here comes the cool part! Instead of changing back into my clothes and driving to the store, I flip open my laptop and log on to Kroger.com. In seconds, I’ve entered the wonderful realm of ClickList.
As shopping websites go, this one is bare bones—two-cups-and-a-string. The anti-Jetsons. Nothing at all like Amazon or Zappos. And yet it is amazing. Life altering. It is virtual grocery shopping and I hope it never, ever goes away.
If you think those are ridiculous statements, you obviously do not work 25-plus hours a week while simultaneously caring for an active, and hungry, family. But like any decent reporter, I couldn’t just use this new service. I wanted to know how it worked, too. Who are the Kroger elves who take my online order and do my grocery shopping each week? How, exactly, does the magic happen? I decided to pull back the curtain and find out.
Online grocery shopping is new to Cincinnati but not to other, larger markets. California-based Webvan is perhaps the most notorious of the early online grocery ordering services. It appeared in the late 1990s but suffered a painfully public death in 2001 (it’s been resurrected by Amazon but at the time it was known as one of the biggest dot-com implosions ever). Right around the same time, Americans saw “the second coming of Internet grocers,” said writer Bob Tedeschi in a 2002 New York Times story; big name grocery chains like Albertson’s and Safeway began starting their own “more cautious approach” to the business.
Royal Ahold was one of those big chain pioneers. In 2001 the company purchased a family-owned Chicago-based Internet grocery service called Peapod. In business since 1989, Peapod started as delivery-only but has since expanded into store pickup and even “virtual grocery stores” at commuter rail stations across the country. The Peapod website calls it “America’s leading internet grocer, delivering more than 23 million orders across 24 U.S. markets.” Peapod holds all the advantages you’d expect of a veteran player who’s learned a thing or two along the way. More on that later.
ClickList is a relative rookie in the online grocery market. It came on the scene about two years after Kroger, a roughly $109 billion dollar company which now owns and operates close to 2,800 grocery stores in the U.S., merged with Southern grocery chain Harris Teeter. Kroger based ClickList on Harris Teeter’s Express Lane concept: Customers shop online and pick their groceries up at one of 150 different store locations, depending on where they live. Kroger opened its first pilot-phase ClickList program in June 2015, at their Liberty Township store.
After a successful trial run, Kroger felt comfortable expanding. By March, the company was running ClickList operations at 12 different Cincinnati-area stores plus 34 others in six additional markets nationwide. They’ve been adding more locations practically by the month.
Like most new ventures at a company Kroger’s size, the plan for opening ClickList locations is calculated. But, notes vice president of digital Matt Thompson, there’s a make-it-up-as-they-go-along element to it, too, based largely on customer response. “We’re constantly adjusting as we go into this,” he says. “There’s not an official number that we’ve said we’re going to do. It’s all driven by what we’re seeing customers using, as well as their comments and feedback—what’s convenient for them.” The bottom line? “We’re really encouraged. Customers like it.”
Kroger’s not releasing the numbers of users or ClickList sales information. “We’re in learning mode,” says Thompson. In fact, they just started advertising the service earlier this year. The thing that’s made it work so far? “Word of mouth on this has been really fantastic,” he says. With a little marketing, he speculates, it will take off even further. And although it’s appealing to multiple demographics, Thompson says, “busy families are our core customer.” He’s right; most weeks the pickup bays beside me are packed with minivans and SUVs, often manned by multitasking mothers like myself. Actually, many of them are younger—toddlers and infants in tow. I will confess I am envious. There are certain rites of parenting I could have done without; grocery shopping with a crying baby and an active 2-year-old is high on that list.
B.C.—before ClickList—grocery shopping for me was a dreaded chore, largely owing to the fact that my (probably unrealistic) goal has always been to visit the store just once each week. B.C., a typical trip involved heading to the grocery on a busy Saturday, circling the parking lot twice before settling on a spot nearly half a mile away, negotiating uber-crowded aisles and the painfully long deli-counter line, ending up in a checkout lane more than an hour later, and then arriving home, exhausted, oftentimes to a child—any child—pointing to the grocery bags and saying: “There’s nothing good to eat in here.”
There are certainly worse problems in the world, but again, as parenting jobs go, grocery shopping has never been my favorite. So the day I got a postcard from Kroger saying ClickList had arrived at my store, I logged on to my computer in minutes (you can also access ClickList via the Kroger mobile app). Now, After ClickList—A.C.—grocery shopping is a different beast altogether. Here’s how it works:
Two to three days before I want my groceries, I log in to ClickList to select a day and one-hour time window for pickup. In my experience, if you wait until the day before, you risk all the time slots being full, or being left with a few random time choices that don’t work with your schedule. As soon as your time is reserved, you have until midnight that same day to load items into your cart. If you do not officially place your order by midnight, you lose both your cart contents and your timeslot, and have to start over. (This happened to me once. I almost cried. Not kidding.)
Once logged on, you can either individually type names of products into the search bar, browse items by department (deli, bakery, frozen, etc.), or head to one of three other sections: My Favorites, My Recent Purchases, and Sale Items for You.
The price is clearly displayed under each image (and noted if it’s on sale); you can either click the box beneath the image to add the item directly to the cart or you can click on the image itself and see alternate views of the packaging and nutrition information. You can also make notes in a box labeled “add special instructions”—not needed for a can of Pringles but fantastic for things like ordering deli meat and cheese (e.g., one pound sliced thin between paper, please).
Once you’ve filled up your virtual cart, you click through a series of steps to officially place your order. After that, you have until midnight the night before pickup to add or remove items. Adding is easy; removing doesn’t always seem to stick. In total, ordering groceries online every week takes me about 40 minutes.
After I confirm my order, the list is transmitted to my chosen Kroger. Your shopping list is “typically picked an hour or two ahead of when you come,” says Thompson, by “a special ClickList team”—a group of trained shoppers carrying special devices that give them the precise location of every item on your list. A ClickList associate usually fills multiple orders—up to six, he says—at once. While the store map technology is helpful, employees go through extensive training, too, especially regarding produce. “The fresh areas are really important to customers,” says Thompson, who adds that “we count on associates to make great choices.” The “notes” section I mentioned earlier is helpful when ordering produce (e.g., I’d like five green bananas or Please give me the largest head of lettuce you can find).
The biggest concern most shoppers have is that food will spoil while it’s waiting for their arrival. Not to worry, says Thompson. Perishable food is kept in refrigerators and freezers so it stays the proper temperature. “When you get there, that sets in motion choreographed activity in the back room where they assemble your order.”
On pickup day, I pull up to a loading bay at my specified Kroger during my allotted time slot. I hand over paper coupons, approve (or not) any substitutions the store has made to my list, and then hand my credit or debit card to a Kroger employee who’s armed with a card reader/tablet setup. I cannot pay with cash or check, as the website duly warns me. Points are automatically downloaded onto my Kroger Plus card. Then a ClickList associate loads my groceries into my trunk and I drive off.
Total grocery store time: 10 to 15 minutes, tops, and I never leave my car. When you add in my online ordering time the whole event takes just under an hour. Even though I still have to drive there and back and put everything away when I get home, that’s nearly 45 minutes less than I used to spend shopping. Plus, now the bulk of my grocery time each week is spent in the comfort of my own home, stress-free. I smile every single time I pull away.
As exciting as ClickList technology is, it still has a long way to go. Harris Teeter’s Express Lane service is a little more up-to-date, but Peapod blows them both away. Unfortunately, Peapod isn’t available in our area, and it’s probably not coming any time soon. In an e-mailed statement, Peapod’s Chief Marketing Officer Carrie Bienkowski noted that “we are continuously asked to expand our service areas. At Peapod, we believe in smart growth, and are primarily focused on meeting demand in our existing markets.” Ohio is not one of those markets. Still, it’s worth comparing ClickList to a seasoned provider.
Peapod allows shoppers to narrow searches by both brand and very specific categories, plus sort by countless different criteria (think Kosher, calories, most popular, etc); ClickList only narrows by broad categories, with very limited sorting, so it’s easy to get stuck wading through images of hundreds of items. Also, ClickList sometimes has a hard time recognizing names if you don’t get them exactly right.
With Peapod, there’s no need to know the exact name of your product. You simply click on the image of, say, a loaf of Pepperidge Farm rye bread, and instantly see a list of every kind of Pepperidge Farm bread they offer. When you do know the name of the product, Peapod—like ClickList—shows package size and nutrition information; unlike ClickList, “you may also like” options automatically pop up, too. (ClickList has a button for this, but so far it’s never worked for me.)
Perhaps the biggest differences between the two websites are customer service options. With Peapod, you can create and save your own custom lists, as well as make day-of pickup time changes online. As of right now, ClickList doesn’t offer either of these options. Pickup fees with Peapod are cheaper, too ($2.95 with a minimum $60 order versus ClickList’s flat $4.95 rate), plus with Peapod you can choose between picking your groceries up or having them delivered, which costs more. ClickList only offers pickup (except in Denver, where a different Kroger-owned service also offers delivery). The Grocery Runners, an independent contractor, offers Cincinnati ClickList home delivery, but it costs $10 plus 4 percent of your total order, and you have to work through a third party.
Changes will likely need to be made from the store’s point of view, too. Kroger will surely look to make up for the loss of income on impulse buys that accompanies online shopping—the proverbial “bribery doughnut sale,” says a laughing Thompson, for parents shopping with kids. Thompson says the store is happy ClickList helps customers stick to a budget (the running total of your grocery bill is constantly present, along with a visual of the items in your cart as you shop). And I believe him, really. But a quick visit to both Peapod and Harris Teeter Express Lane sites shows both rife with the same temptations we’ve come to expect from most other online retailers, including daily specials and those “if you like this, you might like this” suggestions. For now, though, Thompson stands behind the no-frills platform: “It’s very consistent in how we do loyalty. If you give the customer what they’re looking for, they’re going to reward you by being more loyal.”
So ClickList isn’t perfect. News flash: neither am I. (Don’t tell my kids.) ClickList is a start, though—a huge step in the right direction, a first stab at managing an age-old chore in a 21st century way.
When my kids are grown and daily life is less hectic, maybe I’ll enjoy shopping in the store again like I once did. I absolutely miss my weekly conversations with a certain Kroger cheese shop associate. Then again, I’m making new friends—with the ClickList people. Either way, here’s the thing: For where I am right now—working as much as I do and trying to balance and feed a family of five—I find ClickList to be a blessing. A true help at a time when I could really use the hand.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to head online to do some grocery shopping. After all, it’s 11 on a Tuesday night and I’ve just been informed that, once again, there’s nothing to eat around here.