CYBERPUNK: Real, Express Checkout

As luck would have it, I live in one of the test markets for the Internet grocery-store service Peapod. Instead of fighting the Saturday-morning shoppers, I just "surf" over to the Peapod site, check off the products I need, and pay for them by credit card. A day or two later, burly men deliver these goods to my door.

I love the idea of online grocery shopping because I hate actual grocery shopping. I won't lose sleep over not squeezing the fruit, or checking to see if the dead fish's eyes are clear.

Still, I do have a few minor issues with the Peapod service.

Chief bitch is the process of ordering foods by name. Peapod has this weirdly schoolmarmish insistence on proper spelling. If you're looking for a particular food or brand-name product -- say, a delicious box of State Fair Mini Corn Dogs -- you enter the name of the desired good into Peapod's search engine and it points you to the appropriate "aisle." But here's the rub: You must type the product name exactly. It doesn't care if you're in a hurry or can't spell. Unlike a spell-checker, the search engine won't return a list of nearest misses. I've found that "spagetti" won't deliver you to the pasta aisle. Nor will "spaggety." "Tolet paper" will get you no toilet paper, "burritoes" no burritos. Even more troublesome are all those gimmicky brand names. Those who feel smug about their spelling prowess can take this little quiz: Which, if any, of the following product names are spelled and punctuated correctly? 1) "Chef-Boy-R-D" 2) "Little Debbie's" 3) "Chee-Toes" 4) "Kibbles and Bits."

Shopping Peapod requires a whole new knowledge base -- one that isn't developed by absent-mindedly grabbing colorful boxes off of shelves. As a result, my diet has shifted heavily to the single-syllable food group. It's just easier that way.

Delivery also turned out to be problematic, strangely enough. Believe it or not, grocery delivery can be a time-sink. Don't get me wrong -- Peapod's punctual, but you have to set aside a two-hour time frame, at least one day in advance, in which you'll definitely be home. It's like getting the phone hooked up or having a dentist appointment. It can take a bite from your day.

And when the foodstuffs arrive, they do so in huge blue crates. I'm talking airdrop-size, extra-reinforced boxes, wheeled in on handcarts. Totally uncool. I mean jeez, I don't buy that much. I know I should be beyond worrying that my neighbors might think I'm Hugo, the world's fattest apartment dweller, a man so voluminous he can no longer fit through his own door and must subsist on crates of chow provided by The National Enquirer. But I'm not beyond it. Sorry.

Other than those quibbles, I enjoy Peapod just fine. The only thing is, I can't figure out how the company will make money when it scales up to the major markets. It couldn't possibly profit off of the delivery charges alone, which run from $5 to $10 (plus a tip to the poor guy hauling the damn crates).

At first I thought Peapod must profit from big price markups. But when I compared the prices of some randomly chosen (yet easy-to-spell) items from the local supermarket chain that supplies Peapod in this area with Peapod's own charges for of those items, I found they were identical. Peapod even accepts coupons, if you're into that sort of thing.

Maybe, I next figured, Peapod could be shortchanging workers. After all, competing online grocer Webvan has been charged by the National Labor Relations Board with preventing its employees from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers. Could Peapod be hiring nonunion workers to underprice union-wage-paying supermarkets?

Maybe not. UFCW spokesperson Jill Cashen assured me that all the Peapod employees, where I live anyway (northwest Washington D.C.), enjoy union protection. Hopefully, this union influence will have an effect on the wages and benefits of all Peapod employees.

Still, a business can't stay afloat simply by providing good jobs and easing the lives of social recluses. Only when I visited the "Investor Relations" page of Peapod's Web site, where this Skokie Ill.-based company's business plan is explained, did I understand the Master Plan: Peapod intends to rake in the bucks by becoming "the 'gateway to the home' for groceries [so] it can extend into other categories and revenue streams."

"Gateway to the home"? That's so dot.com. I hate to break it to Peapod, but the only gateway it'll find via my home is the one into bankruptcy. Hey, Little Debbie cakes are an extravagance in the C-punk household. So what else could Peapod possibly shill?

Maybe a dictionary.

E-mail Joab Jackson at burritoes@joabj.com

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