Priceline can help you take big bite out of grocery costs

March 27, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

People who work for newspapers are notoriously underpaid and, not surprisingly, notoriously tight with a buck. They revel in their ratty clothes and spend hours bragging about how many miles they've squeezed out of beat-up Hondas and third-hand Volvos.

They also tend to embrace new technology with all the enthusiasm of a deer contemplating the headlights of an oncoming tractor-trailer. So when several of my colleagues started raving about the money they're saving on groceries by Web shopping at Priceline.com, I figured it had to be worth looking into.

And it was. If you're willing to add a half-hour to your shopping time each week, give up some brand loyalty and put up with an awkward Web site that can be frustratingly slow, you can walk out of your local supermarket with a load of groceries for a lot less cash than you thought.

If you haven't heard of Priceline, it's a dotcom that rocketed its way to an absurd market capitalization with a unique -- and now patented -- reverse auction gimmick. Instead of serving as a middleman for buyers who want to bid on merchandise, it lets customers name the price they're willing to pay for an airplane ticket, hotel room or car and matches them with sellers who are willing to meet it.

When Priceline spun off a new, privately held company called WebHouse Club to add groceries to its mix in November, I was skeptical. It may be fun to play Monty Hall with a trip to Aruba, but who wants to haggle over cornflakes, diapers, laundry detergent, milk, yogurt, toilet paper and dozens of other items every week?

Apparently, a lot of people. Since November, the company says it has signed up more than 300,000 customers in Baltimore, Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, Detroit, Vermont and southeastern Virginia. It's headed into other markets as fast as it can, with the ultimate aim of national penetration by the end of the year.

Robert Padgett, a company spokesman, said its customers include 22,000 shoppers in the Baltimore area and another 25,000 in Washington and its suburbs.

WebHouse claims its users save an average of $13 on a $35 shopping bill. Based on my experience with our family's normal shopping list, that estimate may be conservative. Unfortunately, getting to those bargains is more complicated than it should be -- a combination of Lotto and "Let's Make a Deal." But if you persevere, you'll get the hang of it.

Start with a visit to www.priceline.com to check on participating stores in your area. In Maryland, Priceline has signed up the Giant, Metro, Super Fresh, Weis, Acme and Food King chains, which puts it in reach of a large percentage of the population.

You'll also need a WebHouse shopping card, which you can request online. If you're in a hurry, check at a participating supermarket. A hawker was giving WebHouse cards to anyone who would pay attention last week at the Owings Mills Giant where I shop. You don't need the card to check prices at the WebHouse shopping site, but you do need it to buy groceries.

That done, you can start looking for bargains online, choosing from dozens of food categories. Let's say you're interested in sweetened cereals. WebHouse displays seven national brands. You have to be willing to pick two from the list, and that's the first potential pitfall -- you don't know which one you'll get. When I tried it, WebHouse was offering Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats, both of which we eat. So that was fine. But if you like only one of the cereals, you can take the chance of being stuck with cereal you don't enjoy or pass up the category altogether.

Now comes the haggling. WebHouse says the normal shelf price of 14-ounce sweetened cereals is $3.19 to $3.89, which turns out to be accurate. The Web site offers a choice of four prices, ranging from $2.00 to $2.84, with increasing probability that your offer will be accepted. You can also name your own price or use one of six "tokens" that newcomers get to lock in a half-price deal. As I said, it's complicated. In all but a few cases I chose the next-to-lowest price and used a token to lock in a salmon fillet at $2.82 per pound.

Once you've worked your way through your shopping list (which involves a lot of clicking), it's time to check out. If you're a first-time user, you'll have to activate your shopping card first, which means giving Priceline your name, address and credit card number.

Now it's time for showmanship: WebHouse displays a tacky little slot machine animation on your screen while it ponders your offer. When its computer is through cogitating, it displays the results: In my case, it accepted 23 out of 25 items for a grand total of $45.87.

If you decide to take the deal at this point, you're committed. The total is charged to your credit card and credited to your WebHouse account. You also get a confirmed shopping list with WebHouse prices that you can print and take to the store.

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