The supermarket of the 21st century will look more like a warehouse than a grocery store.
No checkout lanes or store displays. And to speed up the shopping, grocers will clear out the colorful produce department and replace it with bins of high-volume items like milk, eggs, and bananas.
And the biggest change of all: no shoppers.
Increasingly, grocery experts say, consumers will buy food with a mouse. They will go grocery shopping through the Internet and have the food delivered.
Already, a third of US grocery stores experiment with some kind of delivery service.
And although a scant 90,000
Americans now buy groceries online, the number should mushroom to 7 million by 2002, according to a recent study by eMarketer, an Internet consulting firm.
"It will become just as consistent as the mail being delivered," says Mark Artus, senior vice president with Fitch Inc., a large consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio.
That prospect holds plenty of appeal to food shoppers such as Sandra King of Boston.
Six months ago, she was so strapped for time she didn't get to the supermarket for three weeks. As the mother of three, a wife, and senior vice president of marketing at a Boston-area finance company, that was understandable. But her pantry was down to a box of Rice Krispies, she says. And even the kids complained about pizza for dinner (again).
That's when Ms. King signed up with Streamline, an up-and-coming home delivery service.
For $30 a month, the service takes her grocery order every Monday and delivers it Tuesday. (Streamline installed a special refrigerator and shelf unit where the food could be left unattended.) "I've been doing it for six months," King says. "We've been very happy."
True, she still orders by phone. But industry- watchers agree that, for such customers, this is a transitional step. Grocery delivery services will soon move all their customers to the Internet, because it's much cheaper than processing phone orders.
And while a phone is more familiar to many customers, once they get used to ordering on the Web, they like it.
"It makes life easier," says Shawn Whalen, a Boston-area public-relations executive. He uses Peapod, the largest online grocery service, and calls it "one less hassle" in a busy life.
But the service isn't for everyone.
For openers, online is not "off-price." These services generally charge a fee, although a few offer free delivery with big orders.
One exception is NetGrocer, an Internet outfit that ships grocery items nationwide and claims discounts up to 20 percent.
Otherwise, fees typically run $10 and up per delivery, sometimes on top of a small monthly charge.
Then there's the technology itself. Even shoppers comfortable with computers can be turned off by how long online shopping takes, at least initially.
Theresa Marcroft, marketing director of an Internet software company in California, tried Peapod a year ago. But "it took me a really long time to find each thing I had in my mind," she recalls. After one try, she gave up.
Since then, the company has improved its software and Ms. Marcroft says she's ready to try again. But the time savings typically come after repeated uses, when the system recalls a customer's original shopping list.
Finally, some shoppers don't want somebody else picking their asparagus.
"People feel like they're giving up the control," says Kathleen Seiders, a marketing professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "People tell market researchers that they hate to shop for food, but the fact is that people like to see what's new. They like to interact with other people. Particularly, they like to pick their own fresh food."
Even the most optimistic observers doubt the cyber grocery store will take over anytime soon.
"People have developed the habit of going to the grocery store, and those habits are not easy to break," says Robert Linneman, a food marketing professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. By 2010, perhaps 1 in 10 shoppers will have made the switch, he adds.
But that leaves plenty of company for anyone who wants to step lively through real grocery aisles.