Food retailers are taking a step back from their e-tailing programs and learning it's important to walk before they run. In the Internet's mix of content, community and e-commerce, they are finding that providing information and community on their Web sites is the foundation for online sales if they choose that path.
Michelle Croteau, a spokeswoman for Byerly's, a division of Lund's Food Holdings, St. Paul, Minn., said, "Retailers have found that e-commerce hasn't been hugely successful, so we're taking a different approach first."
Byerly's relaunched a newly designed byerlys.com last year. The goal was to make the site a branding vehicle for the retailer, similar to the Byerly Bag and the chain's monthly mailer, said Croteau.
While Byerly's offers a limited selection of about 10 regional specialty products for sale online, Croteau said, the chain wants to become more of a "destination resource" where Byerly's customers will turn for information and added services.
An example is the extension of the chain's Living Wise whole health program, which can now be found online. The page includes news updates, featured natural and organic products, and a listing of relevant events and classes.
Living Wise took shape in stores two years ago, setting a holistic agenda for the health and wellness consumer. As an integral component of the chain's demographic mix, a concerted effort was made to reach that customer online, Croteau said.
Attracting women to online sites is also becoming a top priority.
According to a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project based in Washington, women are making significant inroads in the online channel.
The report said women edged out men in online shopping for the first time in December 2001, when 52% of those having ever made a purchase online were women.
Roundy's Online, the Internet program of the Pewaukee, Wis.-based chain, is seizing the opportunity to market to women through a network of links and pages entitled "Mom's Minute," an online support group for new mothers.
The program offers information on nutrition and development, as well as advice on such things as preventing infant sleeping problems.
A proliferation of interactive sites dedicated to children can be seen as the logical outgrowth of the increased attention being paid to the cyber-mom.
Last November, Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, upgraded the Kids Club portion of its Web site to include animated games like Centipido and Tail Fighter, said Jodi Marsh, vice president of communications. The area also features links to other games at popular children's sites, like nick.com and pbskids.com.
The children's component of the site was initially launched about two years ago, Marsh said.
At IGA's site, igainc.com, children can enter Kid's Corner. Food Fighter, a kid's game, is one of several interactive options there.
Steven Williams, general manager for marketing initiatives and services, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., is using similar tactics in developing the company's Internet presence.
Users can click on the Sunny logo -- Ukrop's wellness mascot -- to access information on everything from vegetarianism to hypertension.
For the New Year, the section starts with a few tips on weight loss.
"If people want to use the Internet for information and research, then we have to provide it," Williams said.
Ukrop's is already working with gotethnicfoods.com, a company out of Minneapolis that will be, in the coming months, providing ethnic foods to retailers for sale online.
At this point, Ukrop's is the company's only retail customer, according to Kavita Mehta, chief executive officer of gotethnicfoods.com.
In addition to distributing ethnic products for online sale, the company will also assist the retailer in setting up the ethnic portion of the Web site.
Ukrop's would not provide further details on this upcoming program.
While the focus may be on selling product here, the educational aspect will play a significant role too. Recipes and instructions will also be found on this page, Williams said.
"This is a great opportunity to educate customers on different foods and spices," Williams said.
"Gotethnicfoods.com will be able to offer us resources and information in those areas that we do not have much experience to go on."
The information will be particularly useful for the mainstream consumer interested in exploring ethnic cuisine, according to Mehta.
"People get home with these foods and they don't know what to do with them," she explained. "They need to have this information presented to them in their own terms. We want to give them everything they need to make the most of their dining experience."
Mehta told SN that Ukrop's is among the first supermarkets to make this kind of commitment to ethnic foods online.
While gender, age and ethnicity often lie at the core of demographic development, an increasingly connected world has created a wealth of smaller, niche opportunities. Chat rooms, e-mail and specialized sites turn everyone from pet owners to Harry Potter fans into informed communities.
H.E.B. Grocery Co., San Antonio, uses this to its advantage at heb.com with the Pet Shop. Cat tips, dog facts and promotional offers from Purina can all be found with one simple click.