- - Thursday, August 15, 2013

An innovative new model for delivering groceries opened in Montgomery County, where shoppers who order groceries online can fill their gas tanks while attendants stock their car trunks with their purchases.

Giant Food last week opened a gas station at 8500 Connecticut Ave. in Chevy Chase that also will serve as a standalone location for groceries purchased online through its Peapod service. The Peapod Pick-Up location is the 18th the grocery chain has opened in the D.C. area. The other sites are at the chain’s stores.

The pickup grocery method has existed for about 30 years in various iterations, including phoning and faxing for items — but the combination of shopping online for groceries and then picking up merchandise from remote locations is a relatively new innovation.

“It’s a growing trend to the extent that customers continue to use technology to meet their shopping needs,” said Giant spokesman Jamie Miller, adding that the typical customer would be someone comfortable with placing online orders.

Giant officials say they have been working for years to enhance the shopping experience, pointing to its introduction of ScanIT technology, a portable bar-code scanner that works with self-checkout kiosks available in stores, as another example of grocery innovation. Its current Internet shopping option began in 2000.

“Peapod Pick-Up is an extension of existing online service that’s continued to grow in popularity over the past few years,” Mr. Miller said.

But unlike the other pick-up sites — or the service’s home-delivery option — picking up from the new standalone location that opened Aug. 8 does not require a $60 minimum purchase or a delivery fee. A Peapod truck drives boxes of customers’ orders from a Giant warehouse to the pickup location, where customers wait as attendants load boxes into the trunk. And the Giant-operated gas station on the site honors the store’s gas reward points that count toward discounts at the pump.

Luke Runion, 30, a salesman from Silver Spring, had used Peapod home delivery in the past and wanted to try the drive-through version. He works directly across the street from the pick-up station.

“The Giant store is always packed, and I don’t really like the self-checkout,” he said, adding that he also once had a bad experience with Peapod home delivery when an item he ordered was not delivered. The company gave him a discount on other items as an apology.

Peapod spokeswoman Peg Merzbacher said the company is sensitive to the experiences of consumers like Mr. Runion and is eager to provide options. She said the primary reason for the new pick-up service is because “people won’t shop as often if they can’t travel to a store and are also dissatisfied with the home delivery.”

Ms. Merzbacher said some customers worry that meat and other perishables will be rancid by the time they reach their homes, and they also dislike the wait in stores and the minimum purchase requirements of home delivery.

Online grocery services continue to grow.

Amazon Fresh, a home-delivery service run by Amazon.com, recently expanded to the Los Angeles area from Seattle. In New York, a similar service called FreshDirect extended its deliveries citywide in July.

But critics say the model Giant has adopted might not fit in with the suburban Chevy Chase neighborhood in which it opened.

“It’s almost a halfway stop,” said Phil Lempert, a food industry analyst at SupermarketGuru. “That’s why it really hasn’t taken off around the nation.”

Mr. Lempert acknowledged exceptions to his caveat, such as FreshDirect’s successful grocery pick-up sites in New York City department stores. But the heart of a big city affords a unique opportunity for grocers that the suburbs might not, he said.

“People still like going to the store to shop. Home delivery is the solution for the time-pressed, so unless the drop-off is located on-campus or at a Chevy Chase apartment building, ‘on the way home’ is probably not enough.”

Additionally, Mr. Lempert noted that while people grocery shop about 2.2 times per week, they don’t fill up their tank that frequently, so the convenience of the gas-and-grocery option is limited.

Peapod maintains that Peapod Pick-Up will please Chevy Chase customers as another option in the Internet-driven world.

“The retailers who offer the most shopping options benefit the most,” Ms. Merzbacher said. “We all have to eat, so why not try doing one of your most frequent shopping activities online?”

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