Lehigh Valley grocers roll out online shopping

Jon Harris/The Morning Call - If you're someone who dreads grocery shopping day and the cart pushing, product finding and checkout line jockeying that comes with it, you may want to listen up.

Joining a trend of grocers delivering convenience to customers through online shopping platforms, Wal-Mart on Wednesday launched its online grocery pickup service at its Supercenter at 2601 MacArthur Road in Whitehall Township. The free service allows customers to order groceries online — the minimum purchase is $30 — and pick them up at the Whitehall store without leaving their cars.

"We wanted to provide the customers with a fast, friendly and free experience," said John Calloway, an e-commerce market coach with Wal-Mart. "We want to give the customers an alternative method of shopping for the busy families, the busy businesspeople, people with limited mobility."

While this is the first Wal-Mart in the Lehigh Valley to offer the service, the gigantic retailer began gradually rolling out the service across the country last year. Calloway said the service is now in 100 markets and Wal-Mart continues to strategically bring it to more stores, meaning other area Supercenters could get the program eventually.

But Wal-Mart is hardly the first to offer a grocery pickup service. Phoenix retail analyst Jeff Green said most supermarket chains across the country have either started a drive-up delivery concept or are in the final planning stages.

In addition, other supermarket chains with Lehigh Valley locations have a similar service, such as Weis Markets, which offers its version of "click and collect" at three area stores: on South Cedar Crest Boulevard in Allentown, on Crawford Drive in Hanover Township, Northampton County, and on Glenlivet Drive West in Fogelsville.

Weis spokesman Dennis Curtin said the orders placed with the service, which Weis offers at 36 of its stores, are shopped in-store by a trained personal shopper and are ready as quickly as four hours later. The service is free for a customer's first order and on orders over $150 — orders below that amount carry a $2.95 online shopping fee.

That's where Wal-Mart's service differs, according to Neil Stern, a senior partner with Chicago retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. He said many other grocers are using a tiered structure, meaning service fees for curbside pickup vary depending on how much the customer spends.

"There's a growing list of people who are doing it," Stern said. "Nobody is really doing it for free."

And even though there are plenty of players in the grocery pickup service game, there's still opportunity within a category Stern describes as nascent. That's because, Stern said, e-commerce only represents about 1.5 percent of grocery sales in the United States. Compare that with overall e-commerce penetration rate of 12 percent across all sectors and closer to 40 percent in electronics.

But it is a space where supermarkets are getting increasingly innovative. Stern referenced Cincinnati-based grocery giant Kroger's online service called ClickList, which uses loyalty program data to actually predict what customers need. For example, Stern said, the service may suggest you need laundry detergent based on your past shopping behavior and when you last purchased a container of Tide.

For Wal-Mart, Stern said, this is the retailer leveraging its size and scale in its battle against other e-commerce giants such as Amazon.

"Rather than the physical stores being a drag on their future, they're trying to make them relevant," he said. "Offering free in-store pickup and offering discounts on items are ways to drive traffic into the stores."

And with Wal-Mart increasingly going on the offensive rather than simply reacting to Amazon, the Seattle-based retailer that is trying to break into the grocery industry has taken notice. Amazon launched its AmazonFresh Pickup service at two locations in Seattle, allowing its Prime members to load up on groceries at the pickup spots.

"The underlying reason for all of this is it's very expensive to get groceries to people's homes," Stern said. "So if you can get consumers to come to you, that helps pretty significantly in the cost of fulfilling the order."

The order process at Wal-Mart starts with customers going to walmart.com/grocery and entering their zip code to find the closest participating store. They then fill their online basket and place an order, selecting a time to pick up their groceries. Same-day pickup is available, and pickup is available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

After an order is placed, the customer will receive an email confirmation. A trained personal shopper then picks the items and keeps the order chilled or frozen until it is picked up.

Once customers arrive at the pickup location, they call a designated number to alert a store associate, who retrieves the order and loads it into the car. At the Whitehall store, on the side closest to MacArthur Road, the pickup location features eight reserved parking spaces marked with orange signs

It's a service that makes life easier for Tami Frank, a Whitehall resident who works in retail, takes care of her mother and helps with her nieces by picking them up from school and taking them to after-school activities. So after she got her red Toyota SUV loaded with groceries Wednesday afternoon, Frank said she won't hesitate to use the service again — especially since it means avoiding checkout lines.

"Everybody was nice, and it's convenient," she said. "I'll definitely be a customer."