RealTime IT News

Paper or Plastic?

Type in the word "groceries" on the Amazon.com Web site and you'll get 841 listings of books related to supermarkets and retailing. Several even tell how to launch a grocery business.

Someone at Amazon must be reading this stuff since the company recently expanded its Internet sales operations to offer soap, canned soup and other grocery items to its online buying community.

The beta site went live last month in response to user demands for an online grocery service, said Jani Strand, an Amazon spokeswoman. There are roughly 10,000 items on Amazon's virtual shelves, all of them non-perishable, she noted.

The grocery Web site was launched quietly and without fanfare, which is the usual way the company floats a trial balloon, explained Strand. The decision to officially debut the grocery service will depend on user response and acceptance of the online food market.

"We put new services up live on the site before we actively promote them so we can get information from customers and continue to expand selection," Strand said.

Amazon is not saying when the official ribbon cutting might happen, though.

This is not Amazon's first foray into food. The company launched a gourmet section on its Web site in 2003 that presently offers everything from ice cream to gourmet steaks. All of these products, however, are shipped through third-party partners, such as Omaha Steaks and House Foods America.

Amazon, though, warehouses none of those products. All of the non-perishables offered through Amazon's new grocery business, however, are stored at the company's facilities and shipped directly to consumers, explained Strand.

How does Amazon hope to succeed where others, like the defunct WebVan, have failed?

Don't ask Amazon that question because the company claims it doesn't look at the competition when considering a new business. Instead, it reacts to user demand, which Strand says has been overwhelmingly positive so far.

Comments posted on the Web seem to support that claim, pointing out that such services save consumers time and money. At least one fan noted that Amazon's prices for organic foods were cheaper than the local health food store.

Amazon hopes to build enthusiasm for its virtual grocery mart by extending its Amazon Prime membership program to the grocery site. This allows unlimited two-day shipping for a set yearly fee of just under $80 for up to four family members.

In the end, though, it will be up to consumers whether or not Amazon rings up a hit or has a massive clean-up in aisle five.

Online shopping is great, notes one blog comment, "but then you don't get to read Star magazine while you wait at the checkout."