Shopping in 'Cairo'

Like an online bazaar, a Web site lists what's on sale at local grocery stores for quick side-by-side comparison

September 01, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Heather Ford's old grocery routine used to start every Sunday at the kitchen table.

Working with a pad of paper, a pen and four or five supermarket circulars, the 46-year-old McDonogh School teacher and mother of three boys would flip through pages and pages of advertised sales to carefully arrange her family's grocery list for the week.

She clipped coupons, went shopping Monday and then started all over again keeping an eye out for deals.

It was a tedious practice Ford discontinued last month. Today, she simply checks her e-mail thanks to a new online search program called that shops local stores' sale prices for the best bargains on all her staples.

Looking for inexpensive spaghetti sauce? Which supermarket has the best value on chicken breasts? Is a coupon necessary to get the lowest price on canned beef stew? electronically alerts Ford with weekly sale prices, supplies side-by-side cost comparisons at stores near her Reisterstown home and informs her about whether coupons or membership cards are needed for the deal.

"It saves me a lot of time, and it's one less thing I have to think about," Ford says. "This breaks it down by store and shows me what's on sale at what store. You don't have to flip through the pages of the circular to compare prices. It just takes minutes now to call up the e-mail, go to the Web site and then print my list out. It's hassle-free."

Joining a wave of Internet companies that aim to help consumers comparison-shop online for everything from cars to books, as well as find what's available in neighborhood stores, San Francisco-based Cairo is using the same technology to make grocery shopping easier.

A free service, Cairo uses Web crawlers to search weekly sales data provided on supermarket Web sites or newspaper circulars that are scanned into the system to track down a variety of products.

Consumers can search the site using a ZIP code and then typing in individual, generic items such as milk, or more specific items such as Del Monte sliced peaches. Within seconds, Cairo will pull up any local store offering that item for sale. Or consumers can create a list of products and receive e-mail alerts whenever one of their items goes on sale locally.

The online shopping tool will likely win fans in value-oriented shoppers who always look for deals, but Michael Sansolo says attracting all shoppers across the board could prove challenging.

"There is no average shopper," says Sansolo, vice president at the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute, a trade association. "There are times when a shopper is very motivated by price. Other times, we are motivated by convenience or location. It could be a quality issue. There are online tools that help you with buying cars or computers, but groceries are different.

"You buy them so often," Sansolo says. "The difference in pricing for a product may be 2 cents. If you put your whole shopping list in and it tells you that you can find value in shopping at seven different stores, you'll probably say, `Uh. No.' Then again, there are people who take all the circulars and go through them religiously. I'd imagine Cairo might find a certain level of success if they find a consumer base that will use them loyally like that."

Saving money, after all, is something almost everyone can relate to, says Cairo Chief Executive Andy Moss.

Moss started Cairo, a name meant to be evocative of food bazaars, in 2003 when he was working for a technology company that was selling pricing software to retailers like Safeway, Best Buy and Radio Shack.

When the Web site launched last October, the search engine began scouring major retailers on bigger-ticket items such as iPods, plasma TVs and computers. But given that shoppers spend an average of $92.50 a week on groceries and 40 percent of grocery shoppers say they look in the newspaper for grocery deals, according to the Food Marketing Institute, Moss figured a focus on food was a logical move.

Cairo was the first to push into groceries at the end of July. There are more than 75 retailers listed on the site currently, but a number of local supermarkets were added more recently such as A&P Supermarkets, Acme Markets, Food Lion, Giant Foods, Safeway, Target, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.

"I realized that the American public is trained to buy things when they're on sale, whether it's groceries or TVs," Moss says. "It was just a matter of when to buy, whether you would end up saving 30 percent or 50 percent. I figured we could use the same technology to make buying groceries easier. We do all the work for them."

For example, when Ford typed in "chicken" recently, Cairo told her that chicken was 10 cents cheaper at the Safeway than at the Giant, both on Reisterstown Road.

"It's pretty user-friendly," Ford says. "I think my list had 30 things on it. Instead of always worrying about what sales are coming up, it just comes to you."

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