NEW YORK -- While a number of retailers have had their interest piqued by the creative communication possibilities on the Internet, technology executives wonder just how useful a consumer-accessible web site is at this point.
Despite the many questions about the Internet's current utility, most retail technology executives expect it to become more useful in the future -- perhaps in the immediate future.
Many major chains have web sites -- with store locations, weekly specials, financial reports and other information. At Wal-Mart's web site, viewers can even send resumes and apply for a job, or contact the chain's suppliers.
Several chains are also working with outside companies to offer shopping and delivery via the Internet. But many executives question how widespread such services will become. The cost of providing home-shopping services and the challenge of accepting credit-card charges over the Internet are two barriers cited by retailers.
The Internet's usefulness as a basic communications tool to reach supermarket shoppers is also a concern among those who note that the demographics of Internet users don't match those of traditional supermarket shoppers.
One technology executive felt the effort was a waste of resources at this point. "Who's looking at it? Other retailers."
Another executive questioned whether a web site for a local or regional chain offers a benefit by reaching Internet users across the country. But supermarket executives are also experimenting with Internet uses that do offer immediate benefits to customers in their shopping areas.
Typical programs include special orders from departments such as deli and floral, electronic coupons that can be downloaded, and the use of e-mail for customer feedback.
Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass., has just put in a program to let customers pick out photographs from film dropped off for developing, order the prints they want, download prints to their computers or e-mail the photos to friends and relatives elsewhere.
For these and other reasons, development of web pages is popular among retailers. Here's what some supermarket executives are doing on this front:
We introduced a web site in November 1995 and it continues to serve us in many ways. We see it as a window on the corporate soul, with a news page, store locations, financial information, and direct access to the home page of our parent company, J. Sainsbury plc.
Now we're working on making the home page even more applicable to our customers' needs. We introduced a photo retrieval system at the end of 1996, for example. When customers get their film developed, the film includes an access number that customers can use to get what amounts to a proof sheet via the Internet.
They can retrieve photos through the Internet, blow them up, crop them, download them, e-mail them anywhere, order additional prints and have them mailed to people, have photos printed on a coffee mug or T-shirt. It's one of the best consumer applications of the Internet I've seen yet.
I don't think of the Internet as a sales tool, but as a communications device for information about our company, especially on the financial side. For a global corporation, it permits a full portrayal of what our company is all about. It also helps when we go into a new market; customers can find out about us. We don't use it for weekly specials. For that, we rely on the old staple flyers, which continue to be our principal marketing tool.
As Internet access becomes more fully developed and information more readily retrievable, I could see putting corporate videos on the web site. It's critical to keep the web site updated. The vitality and timeliness of it is the secret.
We're working on a web site , but it's not yet available to the public. We're still deciding exactly what we want to put on the site and how to maintain it in the normal course of operations. Web sites need interesting, useful and timely information, and that's a real challenge in day-to-day operations.
We're debating whether it makes sense to offer only selected services or the entire store. Do we need this information on the site? Is it useful? There's no point being redundant on the Internet. How many recipes does the consumer need?
So far, we think the web site makes sense for at least three of our services. In catering, we'd be looking for the exposure, not using it for ordering. But we can explain the range of products available on our menu of over 200 items, give people an idea of how many a given item feeds, and tell them how to contact a sales representative. We could also use it for our box-lunch and gift-basket services.
But we still have to work out how we accept orders, and what changes in our company intranet structure are needed to handle those orders. For example, how do we secure credit-card numbers? We also need to know how to answer questions that come back not only about our products, but also about how to use the Internet service.
I'm not sure the Internet now is getting to the supermarket customer. There's business to be done there, but are you reaching your customer? What's the benefit to me if the person reading my wine newsletter is in Georgia?
If we are good retailers, we're creating an environment in our stores that is exciting and informative, and can't be duplicated on the Internet. If we lose "high touch" and only become high-tech, it's a sad place to be.
While we do have an Internet site, we find the biggest problem is that people's time is so valuable, and it takes forever to get through a web site. We see the Internet as a great idea if it can be done faster. We've had our site about two years, but we're not promoting it. We're a small company and have other ways to spend our money right now.
We put our weekly ad on our web page. We do have hits on it, but does the average consumer use it? I don't think so. We don't do any ordering via the web site because we would have to get into delivery, and I don't think customers want to pay the delivery charges.
I don't foresee really widespread Internet use until we have a virtual store out there, where a shopper can "pick up" an item with the mouse, turn it over and examine it before ordering. That could be especially useful in cities where real estate is expensive.
The Internet now is like the beginning of scanning. It will start slowly and eventually be widely used. It will happen, but not yet.
The concept we're working on is creating a community Internet site. We see ourselves as a general store of the '90s for our market. The site would include what we do, but also general interest items, recipes, the local tides chart. That's going to happen this year.
But the idea of item-price advertising on the Internet leaves me cold, as does shopping via the Internet. Shopping is a sensory experience. We are into frequent-shopper loyalty marketing. Our best customer is 40 to 55 years old and doesn't use the Internet much.
I send a newsletter to our top customers, and late last year asked how important home shopping would be to them. Less than 5% were even mildly interested.
What I can see doing over the next two to three years is using the Internet or phone, e-mail or fax for replenishment shopping. Customers could order their staples in advance, we'd put those up for them, and they can pick up that order when they shop for meat, produce and other such products.
We're in the middle of developing a web site. We have the basic stuff out there now -- store locations, phone numbers. The site's been up for about two months and we're getting some hits. We do get e-mail from people via the site.
We'll start mentioning the site in our ads and put some signs in the stores in the future. I see it as another way customers can give us their input if they don't want to speak to a store manager or write a letter.
coordinator Goff Food Stores Haslett, Mich. We are putting a web page together and plan to have it ready by the end of the year. We're looking at linking it to manufacturer sites as well.
We expect to have electronic coupons that customers can download as well as advertising information. We do a lot with our floral and deli departments during holidays and at graduation times, so those departments will be a big part of our page.
We have a web site, but it's still under construction. At present, we're using it to convey information about the stores, specials for the week, locations, a little history of the company. We also have a "guest book" for people to sign and a place for them to send comments via e-mail. We probably get 30 to 40 pieces of e-mail a week from the site.
We're also working on putting our gift catalog on the site for direct ordering. Now people can just order the catalog to be sent to them.
I think electronic shopping will be only through the gift catalog. When we get into ordering from the gift catalog, we'll probably have to go outside for help to handle credit cards, inventory updates, etc.
We won't do regular grocery shopping via the Internet, because we'd have to get into delivery. Our stores emphasize meat, fruits and vegetables and other products that are the kinds of thing people like to pick out for themselves.
We're thinking about a customer web site, but I'm not arguing in favor of it. Retail is still about location and immediate gratification. Maybe with more Internet penetration, it will eventually make more sense.
We're in a resort area and there are a couple of Internet providers in Traverse City that have sites covering local businesses for tourists, and that would be a possibility.