You’ve probably noticed the postcards popping up in your mailbox for a new service called Jet.com, promising that you can get groceries delivered to your home. I got mine last week (complete with a promise of $10 savings), and it prompted me to do a bit of research.
It turns out this company, which didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, has now become a major disruptive force in the grocery business. And it’s not just groceries; while the company focuses on groceries in its marketing, you can buy just about anything on the site.
After the site’s creation in 2015, its meteoric rise caught the attention of Wal-Mart, which wanted to position itself at the front of the online-retailing race. In September, the superstore behemoth acquired Jet.com for about $3 billion.
Of course, the grocery business is no stranger to innovation, but this could be one of the most profound. While it’s taken awhile for the sedate industry to embrace e-commerce, it appears that long-awaited day has arrived.
The roots of the grocery business reach back into antiquity; people have always needed a market to buy and sell food and other essentials. Innovations through the years have brought a lot of changes, with none (at least until recently) more important than the invention of the first true self-service grocery stores. An entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders is credited with helping bring about this revolution with the opening in 1916 of the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis. This store and others like it changed the way we think about shopping. (If you’re ever in Memphis, stop by the awesome Pink Palace Museum to see a mockup of Saunders’ revolutionary concept.)
In the century since Saunders opened his doors to customers, technological innovations have slowly changed the shopping experience. But the recent developments with Jet.com and other online retailers have promised that the shopping experience will soon be transformed. Now, you can peruse a website, place your order and have your groceries delivered — all without ever having to leave home.
When I got my Jet.com postcard (which promised $10 off my first purchase and free shipping if I bought more than $35 worth of groceries), I decided to give it a try. The site is pretty easy to navigate, and does appear secure, although you must provide your contact info and payment information. I put a few items in my “virtual” basket, and noticed that as I did so, the prices for some of the goods already in my basket were dropping. In other words, the more items you buy, the bigger the discounts. Jet.com says this is because they can group certain items in a box, therefore saving the cost of shipping.
Compiling my order on a Wednesday, I gave the packers a challenge; among my choices were a cumbersome 15-pound bag of dog food, a 150-ounce container of clothes detergent, three boxes of cereal and a few small items. The prices were competitive with what you’d pay in a local store, with no taxes or shipping charged, and my $10 coupon code applied. After completing the order, I clicked “submit” and then waited. Delivery was promised within two days. Sure enough, on Friday, a box was waiting by the front door, delivered by FedEx.
Inside, the items were arranged neatly and efficiently. My only issue was that one of the cereal boxes had gotten a little crushed, but the contents appeared none the worse for wear. All in all, it was a pretty nice shopping trip — no checkout lines, no germy cart handles, no wrestling of grocery bags to and from the car. And, of course, Jet.com will remember your list and preferences for next time (and will probably start bombarding you with ads and promotions.)
It’s also important to note you can save a few pennies on your order by giving up your right to “free returns” of certain items; you may want to consider carefully whether you’d want the ability to return items for refund or replacement.
While Jet.com’s services are an end-run around the built-in challenges faced by bricks-and-mortar stores, some retailers have recently been upping the ante on their own convenience services, such as online ordering and pick-up at local stores. For example, Kroger’s ClickList allows you to order online and pick up your groceries at curbside. ClickList costs $4.95 (more for an “expedited” order), while Wal-Mart’s is free. And both companies promise delivery services soon in local communities.
One thing is prominently missing from Jet.com and similar services, at least for now: the ability to buy fresh or perishable groceries. Jet.com says fresh products are available only in selected cities, but promises to bring fruits, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods to us in due time. In the meantime, you will have to get your milk and bananas through a local bricks-and-mortar store, but at least you’ll be able to pick them up without having to leave your car.
For now, no one knows whether — or how — these innovations will change the grocery store experience in our local communities. And long-term relationships built between local, knowledgeable grocers and their customers (which put sales tax dollars and payrolls to work in local communities) will be hard for online retailers to overcome. It won’t be apparent for a while whether we’re seeing the cutting edge of a complete transformation of how we shop for basic necessities, or just a test of what proves an unsustainable model. Still, it’s an interesting time to be a shopper.