The Webvan Cometh

The last time I wrote about Webvan, I was still just outside their delivery area. That changed last week, enabling me to finally do a complete review.

You don’t know how hard it is to order $50 worth of groceries until you have to. (Remember that Webvan can’t deliver beer, wine or spirits in Atlanta.) At 36 cents “the each,” that’s a lot of potatoes.

You also don’t realize how many SKUs (separate items) a regular grocery store has until you try to fit them into a web site. Webvan’s limited selection meant compromises had to be made in the name of research.

For example, it’s basil season and we have a favorite recipe. Flatbread crackers spread with cream cheese, topped with a sun-dried tomato packed in oil, and a whole basil leaf. But Webvan doesn’t carry our crackers, and the only sun-dried tomatoes they have are in a pesto.

There are other limits. You know how you can go to the grocery and find four or five brands of many items? Webvan generally has two. Often there was just one size.

We asked for a delivery between 3:30 and 4 p.m., so the kids could meet the van. Imagine my surprise when a Webvan was parked outside when I went to get the newspaper in the morning. It turned out the folks across the street were already regulars. The deliveryman seemed in an awesomely good mood for the hour.

We almost missed our own delivery. I pulled up from school at 3:15 and the van arrived at 3:17. But the driver (his name was Mike) was just as friendly as his morning counterpart had been. He carried two plastic tubs into our kitchen and emptied them carefully onto the counter, handing me a printout of our order. He also carried a PalmPilot with a small printer strapped to his belt so I could sign the credit receipt.

Everything was there. The fruits and vegetables were excellent, although I’d never seen a cantaloupe quite that big before. There was one test left.

Word: Sushi doesn’t travel well. It was OK as far as store-bought sushi goes, but the rice had dried out. The rest of the meal was fine; although the kids pointed out they had finished the last box of Cheetos that morning, and I’d neglected to order more. (I’m not going to mark Webvan down for that.)

On Saturday we compared Webvan to our regular market. The farmer’s market has its own compromises (it’s only food, and carries gourmet rather than national brands), but you can select veggies from big bins and feel the quality (or lack of it). When I forget something, the selection often reminds me. (It’s a better user interface.) There are smells and crowds and samples.

Compared to Publix, however, Webvan is quite competitive. If you’re spending two hours (with travel) a week on grocery shopping, you’ll save time (eventually) with Webvan, once you get your list into its system. Until Webvan gets more prepared items, it’s still what consumer talk show host Clark Howard calls a “stupid market.” (He doesn’t like cooking.) But this is Version 1.0. I can’t wait for Version 3.0.

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