Easi-Order Drawing Praise from Customers

Anita Morgan thinks of her monthly grocery order as originating in her kitchen here, where she ticks off items on a personal digital assistant (PDA). But her order really begins its long journey in a huge database on a mainframe at Safeway PLC headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex, 50 miles away.

          Anita Morgan thinks of her monthly grocery order as originating in her kitchen here, where she ticks off items on a personal digital assistant (PDA). But her order really begins its long journey in a huge database on a mainframe at Safeway PLC headquarters in Hayes, Middlesex, 50 miles away.

          Software written for Safeway by IBM reckons that Morgan’s family of four will need two loaves of Hovis Crusty White Bread, a bottle of Safeway spray starch, a box of Home Pride flour, a box of Five Alive fruit juice and dozens of other items, in an order that will bring the grocery chain some $300. It remembers those details from Morgan’s past orders, as it remembers every item bought from an inventory of 22,000 products by 10 million British shoppers over the past four years — some 3 terabytes (TB) of grocery-buying intelligence.

          And the software, knowing that Morgan recently bought hot-cross buns individually, now suggests that she spring for a “cluster” of hot-cross buns — very helpful to her and revenue-enhancing for the grocery chain.

          The draft order, which was transmitted to her Palm III PDA the last time she connected it by telephone to Safeway, also suggests that she try Oracle toothpaste. “That’s Safeway’s own brand. That’s why they’ve put that on there,” Morgan surmises.

          Of course, Morgan sometimes wants to buy something she hasn’t ordered before or something she bought so long ago the Safeway computer figures she’s lost interest in it. Not to worry. If she has an empty box or wrapper for the item, she swipes its bar code with a scanner built into the PDA for Safeway. Presto — it’s now part of her electronic order.

          If she doesn’t have one of the items on hand or if it has no bar code — say, a cucumber — she just describes the item in a free-format field that turns into e-mail to Safeway: “Three large cucumbers.”

          When Morgan has finished editing her order, she attaches the PDA to the telephone in her living room and dials up an IBM server in Warwick, 100 miles northeast of her bungalow here on Myllord Close. This midtier computer is a Java-based intranet server that connects to Safeway’s S/390 mainframe in Hayes. Morgan sends her order to the server along with a note saying she’ll pick up her groceries at the nearby Basingstoke store the next day between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

          Safeway’s Easi-Order isn’t the only home-based grocery shopping service. But it’s the only one to use PDAs and the only one backed by such sophisticated data mining, says Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Other services in the U.S. and abroad use faxes or PCs connected to the Internet to send in orders, and the underlying data mining is product-specific, not customer-specific, he says.

          “The PC is usually not in the right room,” Alvarez says of these competing services. “It’s not next to your refrigerator, in the bathroom or next to the linen closet. So the handheld scanning device allows the consumer to walk around the house to where the items are.”

          Most of the Basingstoke store’s 500 Easi-Order customers use the service weekly. Morgan says she prefers to buy a month’s worth of nonperishable items with Easi-Order and shop weekly for other items in the conventional way. “I like to be able to pick up my own apples and my own oranges,” she explains.

          A Real Time-Saver

          But Morgan, who has two young boys and works at a local college, says she’s sold on the electronic ordering service for the time it saves. “I can go in and out of the store in about 15 minutes because I’ve gotten all these other items through Easi-Order,” she says. “I must admit, going round the supermarket is not my favorite job.”

          The following morning, Safeway Easi-Order specialist Helen Irving arrives at the Basingstoke store, logs on to the Warwick server and prints out all the orders, including Morgan’s, that are scheduled for pickup that day.

          One Easi-Order shopper has used the e-mail feature to add this item to her order: “Husband requests Claudia Schiffer” — a British supermodel. Irving appends her reply in the area reserved for out-of-stock notification: “Sorry, she’s out of store.”

          Sometime before the scheduled pickup, Irving will go up and down the store’s aisles filling a shopping cart with Morgan’s order. But there’s no need for Irving — or, later, for Morgan — to go through a checkout line. Irving logs each item by scanning its bar code with a handheld scanner as she puts it into the basket.

          When Irving has completed the order, she brings it to a holding area at the front of the store. The scanner is plugged into a docking station that reads the order and holds the information until the shopper arrives.

          When Morgan comes in two hours later, she’ll swipe her Safeway account card at the same station, and the system will match the order data with her customer data and send both back to the Warwick server, and from there to the 3TB DB2 database at Safeway’s data center in Hayes. There it will rest until Morgan next connects her PDA and obtains a new suggested order.

          In the meantime, Christine Mullord, whose husband ordered the supermodel, arrives for her pickup. “I think Easi-Order is brilliant,” she says. She says her shopping trips have shrunk from 1.5 hours — “sometimes with children in tow” — to 20 minutes. And she says she likes being able to prepare her order at home while watching TV.

          Asked about the order for Claudia Schiffer, Mullord reddens and will only say, “It just happened last night.” Everyone laughs.

          Amid the banter, it becomes clear that Easi-Order has sidestepped a problem that many e-commerce services face: Some users will avoid technology that removes the human touch. Mullord and Morgan say they’ve become friends with the two clerks who process their orders — something that wasn’t possible previously when they saw a different checkout clerk each time they shopped. Says Morgan, “I know them, they know me and they know the boys. It’s nice, actually.”

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