When I heard Amazon.com was testing a fresh grocery delivery service, I had two questions: In this car-centric city of abundant grocery stores, who needs to order online? And, didn't another Seattle dot-com grocery service bomb less than a decade ago?
SEATTLE — When I heard Amazon.com was testing a fresh grocery delivery service, I had two questions: In this car-centric city of abundant grocery stores, who needs to order online? And, didn't another Seattle dot-com grocery service bomb less than a decade ago?
Grocery delivery made much more sense when I lived in New York, where my neighborhood store was cramped and dingy and closed early. Plus, I had to buy based on what I could carry up six flights of stairs. Life was more hectic, and sometimes midnight was the only time I had to shop.
Here, my local market is open 24 hours a day, and even after six months I'm still in awe of the wide, sparkling aisles filled with organic produce and bulk foods.
When I put Amazon Fresh to the test, I found the selection was limited to grocery store basics, but the delivery service was excellent (and, at least for now, free).
I placed my first order from a friend's home on suburban Mercer Island, one of the test neighborhoods. Amazon started the invitation-only service there at the beginning of August, and has since expanded to parts of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood and the suburb of Bellevue. The company would not say whether, or when, it will expand the service beyond the Seattle area.
The Amazon Fresh site had plenty of staples — eggs, milk, bread, fruits and vegetables — and a good number of organic options. Some of the produce, like bananas and avocados, can be ordered ripe or not-quite-ready. And there were pleasant surprises, like fresh lemon grass, my friend's favorite brand of chili paste and bread from the local Essential Baking Co.
But the site didn't carry enough fancy, stinky cheese varieties for my taste. Even though grocery stores in Washington state stock wine, Fresh doesn't. The ethnic foods section was dominated by jars of Americanized salsa. We didn't see any bulk goodies like dried fruit or nuts, and the deli section was full of prepackaged brand-name cold cuts. The more we browsed, the more it seemed like Amazon was borrowing inventory from its existing nonperishable grocery section to make Fresh seem more robust.
The prices seemed comparable to local grocery stores, though it was tough to compare Amazon's by-the-piece produce pricing. Is 89 cents good for a nectarine of unspecified size?
Amazon's regular Web store is cluttered with reviews and links to related products. Fresh looks spare in comparison, with simple white pages and short item descriptions, but in this case, less isn't more. As my friend and I browsed the site, we brainstormed a wish list of features including nutrition information and recipes with a one-click link to add all the ingredients to our shopping cart. Amazon spokesman Craig Berman said the company plans to add more customization and recommendations, but did not say when.
The grocery site isn't fully connected to the rest of Amazon.com — we couldn't order copies of "Harry Potter" with our nectarines — but it uses the same log-in and password, and it pulls in stored credit card information from the main site. There's no c.o.d. option.
When we added our first item (a dozen eggs) to the cart, we had to stop and type in a delivery address, describe the type of residence before we could continue shopping. Berman explained that the company wants to make sure new customers live in the test neighborhoods, and that this interruption will be cut out when the service is more widely available.
When we went to check out, my friend wanted to use a different credit card, but there was no place to add or change billing information. We had to log in to the regular Amazon.com site to make the change.
We were surprised to see that we had our choice of one-hour delivery windows for the rest of the week. I imagine if more people start ordering, this won't be the case.
We picked 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and at 4:34, a green Amazon Fresh truck with bright red hubcaps rolled up to my friend's apartment.
Out hopped two smiling, clean-cut guys wearing matching Columbia Sportswear-brand khaki pants and snazzy shirts bearing Amazon Fresh's cute radish logo. For our $53 order of 23 items, they pulled out no fewer than five plastic tubs, from which they fished six paper shopping bags. Later, we counted seven additional plastic shopping bags inside.
The Fresh guys, both brand-new Amazon employees, said ours was their only home delivery stop of the run. They were extremely friendly and happy to answer a nosy reporter's questions, but they really scored points when they turned down a tip. My friend mentioned more than once that the no-tip policy made her much more likely to order again.
Aside from the excessive number of bags, Amazon's delivery got a perfect score. Ice cream? Frozen. Lettuce? Crispy. Eggs? Unbroken. Salmon? Refrigerator-temperature, well-sealed and from a nearby town. Amazon also gave us free "complimentary samples," including an extra dozen eggs and a family-sized bag of pre-washed salad mix.
It turns out that 89 cents was a steal for the nectarines, which were as big as softballs.
Most dot-com Web grocery pioneers, including Kirkland, Wash.-based HomeGrocer, imploded because they couldn't attract enough shoppers to offset massive spending on warehouses, delivery trucks and marketing. Amazon, already a household name and a master of distribution logistics, is unlikely to struggle with those problems.
But margins in the grocery business are notoriously thin, and Amazon's average selection puts it in competition with major chains like Safeway Inc., which sells groceries online and in most Seattle neighborhoods.
Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst at Forrester Research, noted that my beloved New York-based service, FreshDirect, thrives in part because it specializes in higher-margin organic produce and prepared foods for busy people.
As she put it, "If you're just selling toilet paper and broccoli florets, you're not going to make a significant killing."
On the Net:
Amazon Fresh: fresh.amazon.com