By Frances Rahaim, Ph.D.aka "The Money Doctor"Imagine yourself serenely grocery shopping with a complete sense of control, wheeling your cart through well arranged isles, choosing only items on your list, and knowing what you're total bill will be before you get to the register.
Consider the freedom in not justifying each “put it back” item to persistent children who seem to desire every colorful box boasting a prize, and who have little concept of the lack of elasticity of the dollar. Okay, maybe it's not a day at the spa, but it's an improved shopping experience, right?
It may seem next to impossible to achieve, but the solution may be closer than you think. Some financial advisors speculate that the calm environment of Internet ordering, complete with virtual shopping carts we can put on hold at our whim, may make for more financially responsible shopping, lessening impulse buys and allowing time to compare prices thoroughly.
Others argue that the virtual atmosphere helps disconnect us from our dollar and we forget to add the cost of shipping, actually causing an increase in spending. No matter which theory you agree with, one thing is indisputable: it is a timesaver and a convenience to have the world’s shopping resources at your fingertips.
While a few short years ago it seemed unimaginable, today we purchase an abundance of items online. Many stores even allow you to order online and pick up at your local store — my favorite. Even some pharmacies now offer online ordering and drive thru pick-up, so, why not grocery stores?
Websites like Alice.com offer low prices on household essentials, pantry goods and even some organics, but no refrigerated items. They offer free shipping on every order, but perhaps the most surprising feature is that they apply manufacturers coupons automatically. No more clipping and there's less tendency to buy an item just because you have a coupon for it.
Online giant Amazon.com has jumped on the bandwagon as well with Amazon grocery. Prices there on most grocery items seem competitive, as you would expect, and shipping is usually free for orders greater than $25.
Amazon Prime members enjoy free two-day shipping. Their "Subscribe and Save" option may yield 15-30 percent discounts on automatic repeat shipments. I like that Amazon allows you to cancel your subscription after the first order without a penalty. Although meat and poultry items are available, shipping tends to be pricey.
Most chain stores such as BigY, Stop & Shop and Walmart are beginning to offer complete ordering online with delivery at home. Stop & Shop’s Peapod program is one such service. Unfortunately, my research did not unearth this option in our immediate area currently.
Membership clubs like BJ's Wholesale warehouse offer discounts on everything from apples to vacations, but are still falling short of a complete online grocery shopping experience.
Of course, nearly all grocery stores now offer flyers online and on mobile devices and some even have scan technology so you can tally what you're spending as you go — a feature particularly useful for sticking to a budget.
I think this emerges as another chance for local stores to pull ahead in the competition for customer loyalty. Their inventory is usually a manageable size to list, they're quite focused on customer service and the incentive to compete continues to nudge them toward building a better mousetrap.
Two very diverse store types stand out in my mind as local examples:
· Green Fields Market in Greenfield and McCusker's Market in Shelburne Falls (greenfieldsmarket.coop) offer a cooperative shopping experience. Their niche market is wholesome foods and organic products. A visit to their Web site shows that more than 40 percent of the stores’ purchases are from local vendors.
· The Barn in Greenfield (barngrocery.com), in business since 2002, offers deep discounts and sells both in- and out-of-code product as well as fresh meats since 2009. They guarantee everything in their store, even if it's out of date. Online coupons and flyers are available at their informative Web site, which links to government and news sites including CBS for detailed information on understanding “sell by,” “use by” and expiration dates.
This may be a good time for me to point out that no matter how large grocery stores in our area may seem, they all employ local people and touch local lives. I am not seeking to favor either large or small grocery stores, but rather to point out an opportunity to upgrade our standard of grocery shopping locally.
Projecting into the future, grocery utopia might be creating a grocery list online complete with prices, prior to reaching the store. Or let’s really dream and consider placing the entire order online, receiving competitive pricing, and having it delivered to your home — all while supporting our local economy.
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