It looks like Center Store has hit the road -- or at least the information highway -- as evidenced by the number of retailer Web sites promoting grocery products and their related customer services.
SN cruised the Internet this month and found that virtual stores on-line are providing customers with electronic services, as well as information on such topics as meal solutions, food safety, holistic health and even local and current events.
What follows are highlights from six retailer Web sites: Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.; Jewel Osco, Melrose Park, Ill., a division of American Stores Co., Salt Lake City; A&P, Montvale, N.J.; Byerly's, a division of Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn.; Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C.; and Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas.
Wegmans Food Markets
Food preparation is the thread that runs through Wegmans' attractive, user-friendly and comprehensive Web site. For example, sub-directories are devoted to such topics as recipes, special diets, food safety, and cooking tips and techniques. Web pages ingeniously weave together valuable information for the consumer with promotion of both products and the store.
The recipe section is quite extensive, highlighting Wegmans' private-label line of grocery products, Italian Classics. The recipes are part of the store's meal solutions program, so they are billed as "Thirty-Minute Meals."
On the Web site, a consumer can choose from a menu of 13 topics, such as pasta and vegetables or soup and stew. Each topic includes several recipes: for example, the beef section had 10 recipes to choose from.
Some of the Italian Classics grocery items called for in the beef section included Diavolo sauce, olive oil, cannellini beans, Parmesan cheese and crushed tomato with Italian herbs.
A subsection on healthy meals, part of the larger "Cooking Coach" directory, gives consumers five ways to prepare healthier dishes, and advises them to contact the nearest store if they have any questions.
Five cooking techniques are recommended: microwave, steam, grill and broil, stir-fry and stock up on broth.
Under the last item, consumers are advised to keep canned chicken and vegetable broths on hand to create a stronger flavor profile for vegetables.
Under special diets, another subsection of Cooking Coach, there are sections on vegetarianism, low-sodium diets, lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, fiber and aspartame.
Three pages are devoted to low-sodium diets, which tell consumers how much salt they need and how to cut down. For example, how to season food with herbs and spices instead of salt; to use plain frozen vegetables; and to drain canned vegetables and heat them in tap water to reduce salt content.
Consumers can also find out about Wegmans' Shoppers Club at the chain's Web site. Some of the services advertised as part of this frequent-shopper program are product discounts, video club membership and WDollars.
Another prominent section at the Web site is the Mary Ellen Burris column, which has more than 100 columns written by Wegmans' director of consumer affairs. Customers can sign up at the Web site to receive the column automatically by e-mail, as it is published.
The most recent column, published at the end of last month, tells readers about a new Wegmans Insulated Bag, about 18 inches high and 10 inches wide, developed by the store as a food-safety tool.
This chain uses its Web site to highlight both recipes and special offers and promotions.
For example, one section of the Web site is a ValuPage, which Jewel Osco and other chains are offering to electronic customers.
The ValuPage has a list of featured brand items, for which customers receive "Web Bucks." A consumer can print a list of items and then bring it to the supermarket, where the page is scanned for rebates, based on what customers buy.
For example, during SN's visit, a purchase of two 12-packs of Mountain Dew would earn the customer $1 in Web Bucks, while any two half-gallons of Breyer's Ice Cream would earn $1.50. At the time of purchase and scanning, the customer receives the coupon or "Web Buck," which is then good toward any purchase on the next trip to the store.
Jewel Chicagoland stores are also advertising a weekly special on the Web site: two 24-packs of 7-Up, Coca-Cola or Pepsi, in 12-ounce cans, on sale for $9.
Jewel Osco also had links to brand sites, which provide product information, rebates, samples and recipes. In addition, the store has a section with its own recipes, called "Meals Made Easy." Here there are five categories: poultry, seafood, beef, pork and vegetarian. Under the poultry section alone, there are 12 recipes.
Unlike the Wegmans pages, these recipes highlight brand items. For example, an Albacore Fettuccini recipe under Seafood calls for Starkist tuna, along with generic Parmesan cheese, fettuccine, Italian seasoning and so forth.
A&P's Web site first emphasizes its banners: A&P, Food Emporium, Farmer Jack, Kohl's, Dominion, Super Fresh and Waldbaum's. Also prominent is the company's mission statement:
"Our mission is to become a customer-focused, leading food retailer in North America. We will become the 'supermarket of choice' of an ever-growing number of customers in each market we serve, under each of the many valuable banners we operate," reads the mission statement in part.
A&P had one page announcing new and remodeled store locations across the country. Also highlighted is its private-label coffee, Eight O'Clock, and all-occasion gourmet gifts and gift baskets, packaged under the Eight O'Clock logo. Gift themes included Sugar Free Gifts, Favorite Selections, Midnight Madness, The 19th Hole, Moonlight Express, Through the Years, Extravaganza and It's A? (Boy or Girl).
Prices ranged from $14.95 to $60. For example, The Royale Express, under Sugar Free Gifts, included Eight O'Clock coffees, pasta, gourmet seasoned olive oil and vinegar, and sugar-free chocolates from Asher, for $60. Consumers can order by phone, fax, mail or e-mail.
The Byerly Bag, this chain's monthly magazine, has a prominent place on the retailer's Web site. One Web page pictures the cover of the current issue, along with covers from the previous year.
The July 1998 issue, already posted on the Web site at the end of June, has recipes and informational articles: for example, there are articles on soy and foods and flavors from California. Highlighted on another page, called "The Perfect Pantry," are specialty ketchups and mustards, such as horseradish or raspberry mustard and Mesquite ketchup.
Another page, on Happenings, informs consumers about a Kids' Day celebration, to take place at the Byerly's unit in Chanhassen, Minn., July 29. Other news is that Byerly's is hosting the Cooking Light culinary road show in the Upper Midwest. Consumers are invited to stop in the store to pick up samples, recipes, product information and a copy of Cooking Light magazine.
Byerly's advertises the Caribou brand of coffee on its Web site, which is sold in-store, and also provides a link to Caribou's Web site.
Many pages are devoted to Byerly's School of Culinary Arts, which describe classes to be held in July, August and September. There are more than 40 offerings, ranging from beginners' classes ("How to Boil Water 101"; four sessions for $165) to gourmet sessions ("Culinary Postcards: An Oregon Winemaker's Dinner"; a $40 session pairing wine with regional cuisine from the Pacific Northwest).
Byerly's also has information about its history, store locations (including a map), and a list of personnel at a new store that recently opened in Eagan.
Harris Teeter welcomes consumers to its "virtual neighborhood food market," and invites them to interact with their neighborhood grocer.
In-store promotions have priority, from weekly specials to the Summer Sweepstakes tied to the chain's frequent-shopper card.
Weekly Specials, good with the VIC (frequent-shopper) card, are advertised. Center Store products include Harris Teeter's Hunter ice cream, $3.79 for two half-gallons, on a buy-one, get-one-free offer, and Lay's potato chips, 6-ounce bags for 79 cents.
Consumers can print out a form from the Harris Teeter web site to apply for a frequent-shopper card, although the completed application has to be returned to the store.
This web site also has store-locator pages for the five states in which the retailer currently operates: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia.
Whole Foods Market Inc.
While Whole Foods uses its Web site to promote its stores and products, the emphasis is on educating consumers about food and health. And, indeed, there is a wealth of information here, along with links to other sites.
A library, under the health information directory, gives consumers a choice of pages on these topics: alternative health, body care, environment, fitness, food, bulk food, nutrition and food safety.
Under bulk food are subsections on beans, dried fruits, flours, grains, liquid bulk, mixes, nuts and seeds, pasta, rice and sea vegetables.
When the consumer gets to the level of the bean section, she will find an extensive list of dried beans, their uses and how they ought to be cooked. This kind of information is not only helpful to the consumer; it also helps the chain sell its products by educating people on how to use them.
Not surprisingly, Whole Foods had information on the status of the organic regulations, along with links to relevant Web sites. Also here is nutritional news, with summaries of recent developments. The site is updated weekly. During SN's visit to the Web site, there were short articles on Alzheimer's and smoking and recent research on caffeine.
Another section at the site is called "Ask the Expert," which during SN's visit had an article about wine, with an appended list of "further reading," written by the wine buyer for the Whole Foods chain.
This site also has a page on the chain's groceries. "Special diets are our specialty," it said. "No-salt, wheat-free, low-fat, sugar-free, dairy-free -- we know them all. Just ask any Team Member for assistance."
The page went on to say that the stores offer "green" household cleaners, paper products, baby food and frozen meals.