Online shopping has its pros and cons, but the old-fashioned way still tops

2013-08-28 00:00

FOR consumers who want to avoid the stress of traffic and trolley jams, online grocery shopping has its own joys, temptations and pitfalls.

In South Africa, consumers have just two options — Pick n Pay and Woolworths, since Spar and Shoprite Checkers have not entered the virtual grocery shopping space and don’t intend to any time soon, and Makro is to launch its online grocery offering in 2014.

A good move, because according to Woolworths’ head of online shopping, Nikki Cockcroft, grocery shopping is taking off in SA with an impressive 30% growth annually.

But being a wary consumer who likes to compare prices, expiry dates and read labels, I’ve never ventured online for groceries, until last week, when I decided to test the online offerings of Pick n Pay and Woolworths. The virtual aisles provided a fusion of pleasure and frustration. Here’s what I found and the supermarkets’ responses to my experience.

ON THE WEBSITES

Both websites were quick to navigate and user friendly. The search functions and options to view all category products on one screen made the comparison of price and product easy.

While the urge to make impulse purchases wasn’t particularly problematic, I found that once I had decided to stock up on special offers, it felt surreal to select 10 items on the list box. And so I bought 20 packets of tortilla chips on special — something I doubt I’d have done in the store. Temptation came by way of products on special interspersed among all the goods, which upped the urge to splurge. It’s not easy to say no when every second page has a different variety of Lindt chocolate on special, rather than it being displayed in one or two sections, as it is in the store. The same tactic was used on both websites.

Booking the delivery and processing to check-out was a breeze. However, the terms and conditions — Pick n Pay’s totalled 43 pages and Woolworths offered several sets of these — could have kept me busy for hours.

PRODUCT INFORMATION

Woolworths deserves praise for its detailed product descriptions, which included important information on ingredients, allergens and storage. However, it was disappointing that countries of origin were not reflected. Cockcroft said the retailer is planning to include this information in future.

Pick n Pay did not list any product descriptions, which was a disappointment. However, Michael Cotterell, general manager of Pick n Pay online shopping, said the supermarket is working with suppliers on this as the information is not yet ubiquitously available in digital format in South Africa. “Capturing the information manually ourselves would be a huge challenge … but it is an option we are looking at as well,” Cotterell said.

Another downside was a tendency to display certain meats as “priced around” a certain amount, instead of showing the per kilogram price to enable price comparisons. I was shocked when I saw on arrival that chicken drumsticks priced “around R22,24” cost R48,99 per kilogram.

By far the biggest downside of online grocery shopping was the lack of expiry dates of frozen foods and fresh produce. Obviously, it is not practical to list these. However, apart from Woolworths’ ciabatta rolls that expired the day after delivery, the other products had a reasonable shelf life of a week or more.

DELIVERY DAY

Woolworths’ delivery in less than 24 hours was impressive, even if the delivery time was wrong, which would have been a problem if there was no one home to accept the order.

Cockcroft said there are “occasionally anomalies” on the time-slot selection and the retailer is urgently investigating the problem. “We try hard to deliver online orders within the chosen time slot,” Cockcroft said.

Pick n Pay’s order placed at 5.30 pm on Wednesday arrived at 10.50 am on Friday morning and was 10 minutes early, with the delivery men assuring me they would have waited if I had not been home.

In both cases, the groceries arrived in large, sealed, plastic storage boxes. The boxes were heavy and I had to let the men into the kitchen to unpack, something I had not expected.

My only gripes with the orders were that ice cream from Woolworths and frozen chips from Pick n Pay had started defrosting, although packed with ice bricks. I was charged R10,99 for two-litre cold drinks that were advertised at R6,99 until September 1 on the website. Lastly, I had ordered several loaves of brown bread from Pick n Pay advertised at R4,99, but received a call advising me the bread was not available. The staff member promised a substitute at the same price. However, I was charged R5,99 for the bread, which although marginal, was a broken promise.

To its credit, Woolworths did offer me a refund on the ice cream and Cockcroft said she appreciated that the expiry date on the rolls was not “convenient”.

Cotterell said the promised bread price was not company policy regarding substitutions. He declined to comment on the higher price charged for the cold drinks and the defrosting chips until the retailer had investigated. “Any products are returnable with the delivery driver for an immediate refund if they are not acceptable or not required,” he added.

Pick n Pay offered delivery prices of R75 and R90, while Woolworths charged R50.

The bottom line: Would I shop online for groceries again? Definitely, but only as a last resort. Getting the advertised special at the till and being able to check product information and expiry dates are important consumer rights and on these points, shopping the old-fashioned way comes out tops.

Other supermarkets reject online shopping

WHILE Pick n Pay and Woolworths both report growth in online grocery shopping, not all food retailers are convinced it’s a good business move.

Shoprite Checkers spokesperson Sarita van Wyk said: “Shoprite does not believe that e-commerce in the food retail environment of a Third World country such as South Africa has much potential in the short and medium term,” Van Wyk said.

She said the retailer is, instead, focusing on developing mobile-technology platforms as a marketing tool for reaching increasing numbers of consumers in a targeted manner.

Spar operations director Roelf Venter said there is only a “small demand” for online grocery stores and the group is not planning a launch “in the foreseeable future”.

Makro spokesperson Roxanne Rolando said the store is launching a new online service in the first half of 2014 offering “online sales of the majority of our general merchandise goods, liquor and limited groceries”.

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