Supermarkets to go on-line PC-based shopping: Metro Food Markets plans to introduce on-line grocery shopping in the Baltimore area this fall, becoming the first grocery chain to do so.

March 05, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

If you've got a computer, you'll have a grocer.

Metro Food Markets, a chain with 12 stores in the Baltimore area, plans to introduce on-line grocery shopping this fall. It will become the first grocery chain to use a sophisticated multimedia program that lets shoppers cruise a "virtual" store, filling a "virtual" grocery cart with real products that they can either pick up or have delivered.

John Ryder, Metro's president, disclosed the company's plans in an interview yesterday at the company's Catonsville headquarters. He said he expects the service to be especially appealing to two-career couples with busy schedules.

"This is real. It's just a matter of when and how you do it. PC-based shopping is here," Mr. Ryder said.

He set a target date of Nov. 1 for launching the service at Metro's Perring Parkway, Perry Hall and Towson stores, as well as at a recently acquired Farm Fresh store on Smith Avenue that will be converted to the Metro format.

Metro will offer the service in partnership with Market Street Telemedia Corp., a West Chester, Pa., firm founded by Annapolis natives Robb Buller and William E. Aherne III.

Mr. Buller said he and his partner believe there are enough home computer users to make their service a viable business. He cited Dataquest Inc. estimates that 29 million U.S. households will have multimedia computers by the end of the year.

Jeff Metzger, publisher of the Co- lumbia-based trade publication Food World, said a smattering of grocery chains around the country have experimented with on-line shopping, but he was unaware of any that used a multimedia technology. "Overall, there has not even been anything close to a trend set on this," he said. TC Market Street's shopping program, which its founders demonstrated yesterday, uses a combination of CD-ROM and on-line technologies to sidestep the limitations of each.

The CD-ROM provides the animation, full-motion video and the "user-friendly" features of the program. Current prices and product lists are imported into the system by dialing into a central computer with a modem. The system thus avoids the seemingly interminable delays that bedevil on-line services when they are used to transmit graphics.

The way it works is this:

The shopper inserts the disc in the CD-ROM drive and clicks on the SHOP4 groceries program. The program dials the service's computer and downloads Metro's current prices on some 40,000 products.

The consumer can now navigate around the "aisles" using the computer "mouse," clicking to bring up the list of products in each category. Products are put into a "cart" by a "drag and drop" maneuver familiar to any user of Macintosh or Windows systems.

The program, which keeps a running tally of purchases, includes a "scale" for weighing produce and other perishables. Customers can pay electronically using debit or credit card accounts. Metro employees will do the actual shopping.

In addition to the basic shopping functions, the program lets shoppers store a list of items bought weekly and place them in the cart with a few mouse-clicks. It also includes a weekly menu-planning table. And if the user has questions, a click on the help button summons Baxter Bag, a talking grocery bag who serves as an animated guide to the system.

Room for advertising

One part of Market Street's screen is reserved for advertising, which can range from full-motion video clips to electronic coupons. Mr. Aherne said focus groups have shown that rather than finding the advertising intrusive, users found that it added life to the screen.

"If you were to shop without any kind of advertising going on, it gets boring," Mr. Buller chimed in.

Metro plans to distribute introductory CD-ROM discs in its stores and through direct mail, Mr. Ryder said. After the introduction, subscribers will receive new discs each month for $6.95. Mr. Ryder said 10 percent of that fee will be donated to Food Link, a charity that supplies soup kitchens.

Mr. Ryder said deliveries will be handled by Grocery on Wheels, a Baltimore company that will charge $8 to $15 for the service, depending on distance. But he said he expects that many busy shoppers would send in orders by computer and swing by the stores to pick up groceries without having to park.

Mr. Buller and Mr. Aherne said they had approached Giant Foods, the No. 1 grocery chain in the region, with their concept but had been was turned down. Mr. Metzger said he was not surprised that Mr. Ryder would take the plunge. "John's really a pioneer," Mr. Metzger said. "He's somewhat of a risk-taker. He's not afraid to put it on the line."

Risks demonstrated

The risks of the concept were quickly demonstrated when Mr. Ryder began to show off the program to surprised shoppers during a visit to the Catonsville Metro yesterday.

"How can you tell if it's fresh or not? You've got to touch it and feel it," said Verna Gray of Catonsville as she examined Mr. Buller's laptop computer.

But Ms. Gray's friend, Kay Husselbaugh, saw potential rewards.

"I think it's a good idea. I don't know if I would personally be interested, but it would be excellent for the homebound," she said.

Under Mr. Ryder, Metro and its affiliated Basics stores have jumped to No. 2 in Food World's ranking of Baltimore-area grocery chains. The growth has been driven by the success of the Metro stores' "theater of food" concept, introduced in 1992. Mr. Ryder said he expects to have 20 Metro stores in operation by the end of 1997.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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