Some on-line grocers give thanks, others give up

Some on-line grocers are ringing up big sales, while others are picking up the phone and calling liquidators to help them dispose of their assets in going-out-of-business sales.

Those diverging business results illustrate that the road to profitability in such a low-margin business is likely to be fraught with failures. For example, and, rival on-line grocery stores that were both based in Westwood, Mass., made back-to-back shutdown announcements in November.

The key to success is clamping down on delivery and fulfilment costs, said Janet Suleski, an analyst at AMR Research Inc. in Boston. For example, she said, on-line delivery service Inc. recently spent $26 million to fulfil orders for $3 million worth of groceries – not the kind of profit margins that add up to a thriving business.

But some on-line grocers remain upbeat as demand rises so much that some would-be shoppers get shut out of buying some goods. For example, Webvan Group Inc. in Foster City, Calif., said a run on its Thanksgiving meals left customers in the San Francisco area unable to order pre-roasted turkey with all the trimmings in time for the U.S. Thanksgiving celebrations last month. However, given the tough competitive environment facing e-groceries, a Webvan spokeswoman said the company takes that kind of demand as a good sign.

Webvan’s San Francisco business unit is still fighting to break even, but the company said there hasn’t been a significant increase in calls or e-mail messages to the company’s customer service centre as a result of the ordering difficulties for items such as the Thanksgiving dinners.

Some on-line grocers benefit from affiliations with established brick-and-mortar retailers. Suleski said Inc. in Burlington, Mass., is faring well partly because of its relationship with Hannaford Bros. Co., a traditional grocer that founded the on-line company. She added that U.K.-based grocer Tesco PLC is also doing well with its venture, which takes orders and leaves picking and packing to be executed in the company’s stores for customers to pick up.’s sales are up by double-digit margins compared to last year, said Alison Berglund, its vice-president of marketing and business development. “People pretty much have been working around the clock this season,” Berglund said. But the five-year-old company has yet to turn a profit, she added.

Another example of brick-and-clicks collaboration is Dallas-based, which sold more turkeys and pumpkin pies last moth than it did during the rest of the year combined, according to president and founder Kelby Hagar.

So far, Hagar said, there haven’t been any inventory shortages or product outages, thanks largely to the experience of’s brick-and-mortar partner, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc. Knowing which products to order and how much to have on hand at GroceryWorks’ facilities “is one of the real benefits of our relationship with Safeway.”

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