BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Shoppers who test a new Internet home shopping and delivery service offered by Tops Markets here this spring will be able to conduct searches and price comparisons of virtually 40,000 items.
The chain is now providing information on all products available in its Ithaca, N.Y., store to a third-party firm developing the program. The information will be stored in a data base that registered computer shoppers can access to view item descriptions, weights, weekly prices and weekly specials and also conduct price-per-unit comparisons.
Customers' personal shopping lists will also be stored on the data base and can be accessed and modified with a password. The customer order data reportedly will be maintained by the third-party firm, Loam Co., Ithaca. How or if Tops will use the customer data, however, remains unclear.
Tops officials declined to comment on the project, but company sources confirmed the Ithaca store will serve as the pilot site and was chosen primarily because of its upscale demographics and proximity to Cornell University with its many Internet users. The service is expected to be launched in late April or early May.
The Ithaca store will serve as a fulfillment center, with order-taking, selection and delivery provided by Loam, which is developing the Internet site (http://wordpro.com/loam/). Loam is also talking with other retailers about participation.
Other Tops market areas that may add the service later
in the year include stores in Chemung, Cortland, Erie and Monroe counties.
Bob Kalter, co-owner of Loam, told SN that his company will supplement Tops' weekly specials with its own incentives, giving computer shoppers discounts not available to customers in the store.
"At this point we are looking at across-the-board discounts" rather than brand- or product-specific deals, said Kalter.
"We might try something like, 'Shop this week through the Internet and get 2% off your entire grocery bill. It's more [a matter of] promoting the idea of Internet shopping," he said.
Neither Tops nor Loam officials would disclose details of the nature of their agreement regarding use of data collected via the home shopping service.
Questions about "who owns the data" collected on shoppers via emerging media such as the Internet and frequent shopper systems, however, are generating increased attention and debate as retailers turn to third-party service providers for implementing electronic marketing programs.
Retailers surveyed recently about home shopping and the role of third parties, for instance, identified the unresolved issue of customer data as especially thorny. The survey, "What's in Store for Home Shopping," was sponsored by Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., and Cornell University, Ithaca.
One industry source, who asked not to be named, underscored how tense situations could develop, pointing, for example, to Wal-Mart's home shopping service and the potential implications involved in who owns and uses that customer data.
"You realize what happens when you place an order? It never goes to Wal-Mart. It goes directly to the manufacturer. So if I'm Black & Decker and I have a complete list of who buys Black & Decker products from Wal-Mart, why do I need Wal-Mart?" he said.