Number of online grocery purchases 'set to soar'

With the increasing popularity of online grocery shopping, lugging home heavy bags on public transport or making an after-work dash to the supermarket could soon become a thing of the past.

The number of such online purchases looks "set to soar", said Dr Brian Lee, head of the communication programme at SIM University's School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Dr Lee pointed to research by PayPal that showed that online shopping revenue in Singapore will be worth $4.4 billion this year.

"If we manage to reduce the number of cars on the road in future, more people may experience the inconvenience of waiting for a bus or taxi with heavy grocery items. Online grocery shops that provide fast and cheap delivery services will be in great demand," he said.

One online grocery retailer is Singapore-based RedMart, which was set up in 2011. Earlier this year, it raised US$26.7 million (S$38.2 million) in funding from investors such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Far East Ventures.

Chief executive officer Roger Egan said online grocery shopping "makes sense for Singapore with its busy working population and sophisticated e-commerce infrastructure". He added that the company's business has doubled about every six months since its inception.

More established supermarket chains are also looking to carve themselves a slice of the online shopping pie.

NTUC's FairPrice Online service was launched in 2002. Its deputy general manger, Mr Dominic Ng, said the service has been seeing an increase in customers of about 20 per cent year-on-year. It now has 135,000 subscribers.

Earlier this year, it launched a revised version of its mobile shopping app, with added features such as tabs and shopping lists. "We have seen an increasing number of customers purchasing groceries online, particularly with growing mobile penetration, and expect this to increase further," said Mr Ng.

With the growing popularity of e-commerce, even traditional wet markets are setting up cyber storefronts.

Online fresh food retailer PurelyFresh began life as a wet market vegetable store in 1998, and expanded to own both wet and dry markets in heartland areas like Woodlands, Sengkang, Punggol and Tampines. Earlier this year, it set up an online site, which is a "natural extension" of its market business, said chief executive officer Desmond Khoo. He added that the service has seen steady growth over the last six months.

The service's website lists fresh food products like yong tau foo, sea cucumber, squid, whole fish and seasonal exotic fruits like yellow dragonfruits and durian.

Most of the customers who shop online cite convenience as a major factor for doing so.

Marketing consultant Patrick Wong, 44, first used the services of honestbee about a month ago. Honestbee is a grocery concierge service that picks up items from stores such as FairPrice, and delivers them to the customer at no extra cost.

He said: "Originally, I used it to shop for bulky items, like cat food, diapers or cans of beer. But now, I also use it because of its next-hour delivery service, which means that if I want to cook something, I can order online in the morning and get my groceries by the afternoon."

Other customers shop online because of the extra services provided. Lifestyle blogger Shirley Tay, 50, has used PurelyFresh's grocery service five or six times.

She said: "I sometimes buy black chicken to cook tonic soup, and I like the skin to be removed. If I put a special request in the order, they will do it for me at no extra charge. It's pretty impressive. If you shop at supermarkets, you will not get this kind of service."

However, offline grocery shopping is not set to die out just yet.

Ms Regina Yeo, adjunct senior lecturer of marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School, said that while online grocery shopping "will slowly grow in acceptance and sales, it is unlikely that the sales will increase drastically for now". "Singaporeans are spoilt for choice when it comes to grocery shopping. Many supermarkets are conveniently located in shopping malls and within our neighbourhoods," she explained.

Mr Allan Chia, head of the MBA and BSc Business programmes at SIM University's School of Business, said that not being able to physically see and touch the products they are buying could be a hindrance for some people. He said: "For some consumers, the online experience increases anxiety and reduces confidence, unless they are shopping for regular items or brands that they can trust or are familiar with."

Methodology

To test four online grocery delivery services, we came up with a list of 10 items to purchase from each retailer.

We decided to buy ingredients to make Hainanese chicken rice, as the dish requires a variety of items, including meat, vegetables, staples and condiments.

We also tried to standardise the weight and brands of the food we bought, in order to provide a more accurate comparison.

When an item was not available, we substituted it where possible (for example, using frozen chicken instead of fresh chicken), but if there was really no alternative, we did not buy it.

INGREDIENTS

- Rice (5kg SongHe Thai rice)
- Chicken (fresh kampung chicken, where possible)
- Chicken rice paste (370g Prima Taste Hainanese Chicken Rice)
- Chicken rice chilli (various brands)
- Ginger paste (174g Soup Restaurant Samsui Ginger sauce)
- Dark sauce (320ml Tai Hua standard dark soya sauce)
- Cucumber
- Old ginger
- Pandan
- Chinese parsley

RedMart makes ordering groceries a breeze

GROCERY LIST

- Rice (5kg SongHe Thai rice, $15.50)
- Chicken (1.5kg Kee Song fresh whole chicken, $8.20)
- Ginger (400g old ginger, $2.25)
- Pandan (unavailable)
- Chinese parsley (unavailable, substituted with 15g Italian parsley, $1.95)
- Chicken rice paste (370g Prima Taste Hainanese Chicken Rice, $7.90)
- Chicken rice chilli (250g AAA Hainanese Chicken Rice chilli sauce, $2.40)
- Ginger paste (unavailable)
- Dark sauce (320ml Tai Hua standard dark soya sauce, $1.55)
- Cucumber (2 Japanese cucumbers, $1.95)
- Delivery: For first-time customers, free delivery for orders above $30. Subsequently, free delivery for orders above $49. There is a flat $7 fee for all other orders.
- Total: Eight items for $41.70, with free delivery.

ORDERING

Ordering groceries with RedMart was a wonderfully hassle-free experience.

Even before adding any groceries to my online cart, I could input my postal code to see the available delivery time slots - a useful feature if you need the food delivered by a certain date. When I put in the order on Monday evening last week, the earliest delivery time slot was two days later, on Wednesday.

RedMart's user interface was clean and a breeze to navigate. Its search function threw up a well-curated selection of appropriate items that can be further sorted by category.

Its inventory is also impressive for most basic needs, although it was lacking in some of the more niche items.

For example, a search for "cucumber" threw up six different varieties, including mini cucumbers, Japanese cucumbers and baby Continental cucumbers.

There was also a short write-up accompanying each listing, which is how I learnt that baby Continental cucumbers are "small cucumbers, similar in size to zucchini" and have "dark green, tender skin".

Chinese parsley was sold out, as was flat parsley, so I ended up with Italian parsley.

Also, while it had a remarkable variety of ginger products, in the form of teas and tablets, there was no ginger paste.

DELIVERY

I selected a time slot of 10am to noon, and the delivery arrived at 11.15am.

The groceries came in red plastic boxes that were sealed shut with cable ties, and the deliveryman cut them open in front of me to hand me the bags.

The RedMart chicken looked the best out of the three fresh chickens. It was plump, the packaging was well-sealed and the chicken had the latest expiry date.

The fresh vegetables also looked firm and not wilted, although I wish that the ginger came in smaller portions as 400g is a lot.

Note: Last Saturday, RedMart issued a product recall notice for several chilled and seafood items that "were not stored in accordance with temperature standards". The fresh chicken I ordered was one of them.

RedMart gave affected customers a full refund for the product, as well as $20 credit on its website.

FairPrice Online: A frustrating experience

GROCERY LIST

- Rice (5kg SongHe Thai rice, $14.50)
- Chicken (fresh chicken unavailable, replaced with 2kg Frangosul frozen chicken cuts (whole leg), $9.90)
- Ginger (old ginger unavailable, replaced with 200g Pasar young ginger, $1.39)
- Pandan leaves (unavailable)
- Chinese parsley (unavailable)
- Chicken rice paste (370g Prima Taste Hainanese Chicken Rice, $6.90)
- Chicken rice chilli (330g Sin Sin Ginger Garlic Chilli, $1.75)
- Ginger paste (174g Soup Restaurant Samsui ginger sauce, $6.80)
- Dark sauce (320ml Tai Hua standard dark soya sauce, $1.25)
- Cucumber (three cucumbers in a value pack, $0.65)
- Delivery: $10.70 for orders below $60, and $7.49 for orders above that; $26.75 for bulk orders of more than 600 items.
- Total : $43.14 for eight items and, with a $10.70 delivery fee, the bill came up to $53.84.

ORDERING

Ordering from FairPrice Online was a frustrating experience, with a scattershot search function that pulls up seemingly every product that is remotely related to the search term. For example, a search for "chicken rice chilli" gave me 370 hits, most of which were completely useless.

The first three items that appeared were Chilli brand rice vermicelli, chicken-flavoured Maggi instant porridge and chicken- and abalone-flavoured Koka instant noodles.

Even after narrowing down the search by selecting the groceries and condiment categories, I was still left with 67 items. The large number of search results cannot be explained by having a lot of items to list - about 5,500 on FairPrice Online, compared to the over 14,000 on RedMart.

FairPrice Online does not stock fresh meat, so I tried ordering frozen meat instead.

But when I tried doing so last Tuesday, even the whole frozen chicken was out of stock, and I was left with a choice of frozen chicken parts. There was also no fresh pandan leaves, and no fresh Chinese parsley.

The upside of FairPrice Online is its lower prices. The value pack of cucumbers I ordered cost only $0.65 for three. The next cheapest cucumber was from honestbee, where I purchased two cucumbers from Cold Storage for $1.13.

DELIVERY

I had a delivery window of four hours, from 10am to 2pm. The goods arrived at 11.20am.

The groceries were delivered in FairPrice plastic bags, with breakable goods such as glass bottles wrapped tightly in another plastic bag for cushioning, which was a nice touch. None of the other services wrapped up their breakable goods in such a manner.

The fresh vegetables looked crisp, although one of the cucumbers was not washed well. There was a clod of soil in the packet which, with the condensation inside the plastic packet, resulted in an unsightly brown liquid floating around in the packaging.

Although this does not render the cucumbers inedible, it probably would not have happened if I had used a grocery concierge service, such as honestbee, that selects your goods by hand.

Buy from different stores through honestbee

GROCERY LIST

From Cold Storage

- Ginger (200g Malaysia old ginger, $2)
- Pandan (50g Malaysia pandan leaf, $0.65)
- Chinese parsley (50g Malaysia Chinese parsley, $2.30)
- Chicken rice chilli (250g Tiger chilli sauce with garlic and ginger, $2.35)
- Cucumber (500g Malaysia cucumber, $1.13)
- Chicken (1kg kampung chicken, $8.65)

From FairPrice

- Rice (5kg SongHe Thai rice, $14.50)
- Chicken rice paste (370g Prima Taste Hainanese Chicken Rice, $6.90)
- Ginger paste (174g Soup Restaurant Samsui ginger sauce, $6.80)
- Dark sauce (320ml Tai Hua standard dark soya sauce, $1.25)
- Delivery: For first-time users, the minimum order is $10, and delivery is free.
- For subsequent orders, the minimum order is $30, and delivery is free. Free delivery is a limited-time offer (honestbee could not say when it will expire).
- Total: $46.53 for the items.

ORDERING

Two-month-old honestbee is a grocery concierge service, which means that the company does not have its own inventory of items.

Rather, when a customer orders from its website, honestbee engages an army of shoppers to pick up the items from a store, before delivering them within the next hour.

Stores that customers can buy from through honestbee include NTUC FairPrice, Cold Storage and Pet Lovers Centre. Customers are charged the shelf price, and the company's profit comes from deals struck with these retailers.

Ordering from honestbee was straightforward. I put in my postal code and then selected a retailer to buy from. Items are clearly categorised and its search function is effective.

However, I could not search for items across retailers at the same time, which means that if I wanted to buy an item which multiple shops had, I had to manually look through the catalogue of each store to find the best deals.

DELIVERY

My delivery time slot was 11am to noon , so I was surprised when I got a call at 10.15am from honestbee.

It turned out that one of the items I ordered - Tiger chilli sauce with garlic and ginger - was out of stock. The shopper asked me if I would like to replace it with Sin Sin ginger garlic chilli sauce instead.

I said yes to the swop. If a shopper calls or texts you and does not get a reply within five minutes, he or she will move on to the next item on the list, says honestbee's website.

All the items arrived at 11.45am. Although they were still packaged in plastic bags from the respective supermarkets, honestbee placed the groceries into two reusable grocery bags, which was nice.

All the groceries were there as promised, and the fresh vegetables and chicken were blemish-free, most likely because they were selected by an honestbee shopper just minutes before.

Easy navigation and ordering at Cold Storage online

GROCERY LIST

- Rice (5kg SongHe Thai rice, $15.50)
- Chicken (1kg kampung chicken, $8.65)
- Ginger (200g Malaysia old ginger, $2.00)
- Pandan (50g Malaysia pandan leaf, $0.65)
- Chinese parsley (50g Malaysia Chinese parsley, $2.30)
- Chicken rice paste (370g Prima Taste Hainanese Chicken Rice, $8.15)
- Chicken rice chilli (180g Glory chicken rice chilli, $1.90)
- Ginger paste (unavailable)
- Dark sauce (320ml Tai Hua standard dark soya sauce, $1.60)
- Cucumbers (two Malaysia cucumbers, $1.45)
- Delivery: $12 for orders below $60 and $7 for orders above that.
- Total: Nine items for $42.20 with a $12 delivery charge, for a total of $54.20.

ORDERING

I did not have to register for an account to order groceries, which is convenient if you plan on just trying out the service.

However, I could not see the available delivery slots before placing an order, so users may fill up their basket with goods only to find out later that there are no suitable time slots.

I found that navigating Cold Storage's online store was the easiest of all the four services, as the search function gave me the most relevant results first.

For example, searching for "chicken" gave me several types of fresh chicken among the top few hits, with other less relevant products like chicken soup and chicken-flavoured cat food further down.

However, this may also be because it does not have a massive inventory of goods. When I searched for cucumber and Chinese parsley, there was only one listed product for each vegetable.

Price-wise, Cold Storage was on the expensive side. A 5kg bag of SongHe Thai rice was $15.50, $1 more than FairPrice's. A 320ml bottle of Tai Hua standard dark soya sauce was $1.60, compared with $1.25 at FairPrice.

DELIVERY

I scheduled the delivery for 9am to 1pm, and the order came at 10.50am. The groceries were delivered in a refrigerated truck, so everything was cold to the touch, even the rice and sauces.

The breakables, like glass bottles, were packed in a cardboard box with the rice, while the fresh meat and vegetables were in separate bags. I had ordered a 320ml bottle of Tai Hua dark soya sauce, but when I opened the bag I found a 640ml one instead, probably because the smaller bottle had sold out.

There was no indication on the invoice that they had replaced it with a bigger bottle, and the deliveryman did not highlight the change.

Shopping at Cold Storage online may be cheaper than shopping in-store. There was a price tag on the cucumbers that read $1.90, but I paid only $1.45 for the pair, as stated on the website.


This article was first published on October 7, 2015.
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