Attention e-mail Shoppers: Groceries in the Mailbox

An online supermarket introduces Swiss to 24-hour food shopping, with next-day delivery by the post office.

Together with the usual bills, newspapers, and ad leaflets, my mail this morning included some unusual items - two bags of Mexican food ordered from Europe's first nationwide Internet grocery-shopping service.

They came from Le Shop, a virtual grocery store with nearly 2,000 products in stock, ranging from pasta, shampoo, and fondue mix to salsa. Like thousands of other Le Shop clients across Switzerland, I received the order through the post office, a service which, so far, is unique in Europe.

While a few supermarkets in the United States are trying out online ordering, such innovations face a tougher time in Europe, where buying fresh products is practically a religion. Many people are accustomed to shopping every day for fresh milk, cheese, and bread.

"There is a bigger tendency to fresh products here," Le Shop founder Alain Nicod agrees. But "there are segments of people who value convenience and saving time.

"We think this segment will grow and eventually 5 to 10 percent of the grocery business will be delivered like this - via the Internet," he says.

Mr. Nicod selected the post office over other delivery bidders because of its reputation. Though traditionally a state-run enterprise, the Swiss postal service has a high degree of efficiency. In addition, Nicod's warehouse in the city of Lausanne is next door to a postal clearinghouse, enabling goods to be packed and rapidly sent out.

While two-month-old Le Shop can boast an unusual and ubiquitous delivery system, it already has a rival. Migros, the giant Swiss grocery chain, has started an online tryout. But so far it is restricted to two cities, Zurich and Bern.

Le Shop guarantees same-day delivery for orders received before 8:30 a.m. Otherwise, orders placed before 4:30 p.m. are shipped overnight to just about anywhere in Switzerland. Most purchases from other Net-based companies take two or more days to arrive. A minimum order of $17 is required, plus a $6.50 delivery fee on weekdays and a slightly higher fee on Saturdays.

Within about two years, Nicod hopes to add a selection of fresh and frozen products to his electronic store. He says it is too early to talk about Le Shop's revenues, but he is hopeful that the idea will take off. Many supermarkets in Switzerland still close at 6:30 p.m., 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and are closed on Sunday by law. Le Shop is an outlet for people who cannot fit these limited hours into their schedules.

Le Shop also caters to busy workers by offering a ready-made office menu, including sandwiches, coffee, sugar, mineral water, and other such indispensable items for the working world.

Finding the goods

Ordering from Le Shop - which can be done 24-hours a day - does take a bit of time, at least at first. Computer-screen icons give the categories of products, such as baby and beauty supplies, tools, and cleaning products. Or one can type in, for example, the word "soap." The kinds of soap available will pop up, along with their prices. Each item is identified by a picture, which can be enlarged for closer examination.

Most items are fairly common and come in popular sizes. Nicod says he is soliciting suggestions from customers about what to add. A frequent suggestion is a mix for brownies, a popular treat here but typically not available on grocery shelves.

When your Le Shop buying spree is finished, each selection is placed in a "shopping basket" on the computer screen. When you "check out," a total of what you've spent appears. The prices themselves are not particular bargains.

Payment is by credit card. Le Shop accommodates those who fear putting their credit-card number on the Internet by offering a pay-by-phone service.

When my order arrived, in two white grocery bags decorated with the yellow Le Shop logo, the breakables - a jar of taco sauce and another of salsa - were well-cushioned. The other items, including packages of tortilla shells and rice, were loose in the bag, but were not damaged or dented. Anything broken during delivery will be replaced, Nicod promises.

Interestingly, in a country that has three official languages - French, German, and Italian - Le Shop offers English as well. Nicod says Le Shop's statistics show that between 20 and 25 percent of its Web site visitors prefer English. Some of those are probably people outside Switzerland cruising the Internet, he concedes.

Will it pay?

To date, Le Shop has more than 6,000 registered users, Nicod says. "So far, we have two types of customers," he notes. "The first orders the minimum amount just to try it out. The second orders regularly and spends about four times as much."

The question, he agrees, is just how many people will take regular advantage of Internet food shopping. To make a go of Le Shop, which so far has more than $2 million invested in it, Nicod estimates he needs about 100,000 regular customers.

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