High-tech grocery service gives ‘Express Lane’ a whole new meaning


I stopped in at the new Harris Teeter grocery store on Route 54 a few weeks ago, for the first time, and picked up a few things on the way home. I was pleased with what I saw and returned to do my regular grocery shopping the following week. I was again pleasantly surprised when not only did they have a cookie and balloon ready to keep my 2-year-old son entertained but they took the groceries out to the car for me and loaded them up.

Honestly, I haven’t had a store employee load up my groceries in well over a decade. And, yes, saying that makes me feel a little old.

My first thought was, “Do I leave a tip?” I know the standard long ago would have been to leave a tip, but the last time I offered one I was told it was against store policy. But it was a reminder that this kind of service is something that isn’t offered very often anymore.

The following Monday, I remarked on the incident, wondering aloud to the rest of the Coastal Point staff whether or not tipping was appropriate. They were equally torn, but leave it to Point Publisher Susan Lyons to point out something in the way of customer service that I hadn’t even noticed during my trip: Harris Teeter offers online ordering with curbside pickup, called “Express Lane.”

She had to know this was going to catch my attention, technophile that I am. So, when it came time to do this week’s grocery shopping, with me suffering from a bad cold, after a long work week and headed into another, it only made sense to investigate this Express Lane option.

Saturday morning, I curled up in my chair in my living room, laptop in tow. I surfed on over to www.harristeeter.com and click on “Express Lane.” My son was playing with his Thomas trains and stopped by once or twice to see what was on the computer screen.

“Whatcha doin’, Mom?” he asks.

“I’m grocery shopping,” I told him, sure he’d be confused.

This being my first time trying out the service, I had to sign up first. It was pretty simple – just my name, address and e-mail, plus my Harris Teeter VIC customer card number, and then selecting the store from which I’m ordering. There’s a FAQ for the service that I perused before I started my order. It lets you know things like what hours pick-up is available, how pricing is handled (you’re charged for what you actually get, at the price the store charges when you’re due to pick it up) and how to make special requests for particular items.

Now, for my first order, the normal $4.95 pick-up fee was waived. No mistaking this is a premium service, but common sense suggests that you’ll likely save that much on a full week’s worth of groceries simply by not wandering down the store aisles tempted by things that are not on your shopping list. That goes double if you have kids you otherwise take to the grocery store with you.

If you’re pinching pennies and always stick to your list, the value of the service may come down to how much you value your time, since all you have to do with Express Lane is place the order online (which you can do at home, while keeping an eye on the kids, rather than battling to keep them happy in the store) and then stop to pick it up, versus doing the whole trip yourself. Since I often put off shopping from Friday through to Sunday afternoon, waiting for a good time, and debate whether it’s better to take my son or wait until he’s got someone to watch him, this kind of service is right up my alley.

Once I was registered with Express Lane online, I was taken to the ordering page, which is set up more or less like the store. There are departments, such as Frozen Food, Bakery, Deli, etc. Clicking on those takes you to a main page for each that shows featured specials. Each department also has a drop-down list of “aisles,” so you can cruise through the frozen vegetable section, the cold-and-flu section of the Health & Beauty department, the doughnuts area of the bakery, and so on.

The aim of Harris Teeter’s online selection is to reflect everything that’s available in your chosen store, and nothing else. You’re given the option to add notes to each item, such as how ripe you like your bananas or that you’d like your loaf of bread sliced. You can also specify whether you’d like Harris Teeter to make substitutions if they happen not to have your chosen item in stock.

In my case, I ordered about 45 items from a variety of areas of the store. I was nervous about whether they’d have my loaf of bread that I’d picked and the vegetarian deli-style slices I sometimes have a hard time finding, and whether my specifying “small to medium” bananas would result in some that were 5 inches long instead of the 7 or 8 I’d been picturing.

Picking the items was simple. I just browsed through the pages in each section, clicking on the “Buy” button and then changing the quantity on the shopping cart to the right. To see more information about a product, you just click on the product image, which opens up a page with detailed information, including in most cases the nutrition label with the ingredients listed. (Good peace of mind if you have food allergies, dietary restrictions or don’t eat meat products.) It gives you a good chance to reconsider whether that doughnut is really worth it, without feeling rushed because someone’s behind you with their own cart.

The Express Lane site also allows you to save items to a shopping list for the future, so you can organize your shopping by items you buy regularly or only occasionally, making future orders much quicker and easier.

In addition to navigating by department and aisle, you can also search the store by a keyword or even the item’s UPC number. This comes in handy when you have a section where there are dozens of options. I ran into this problem when I was looking for yogurt. Paging through all 200 of Dannon’s flavors would have taken forever. I typed in “La Crème” and immediately got what I wanted. When I hit the ice cream aisle and was looking at pages and pages of Ben & Jerry’s funky flavors, I typed in “Breyer’s peach” and clicked “Buy” a few seconds later.

About a half-hour later, even though I’d explored most of the store this first time through, I was done. I put in my payment information (you can pay online with your credit card or pay by check when you pick your order up, securing the order with a credit card). And then it was time to select a pick-up window.

Orders with Express Lane must be placed at least four hours before pick-up time. The latest time for pick-up at the Bayside store on Saturdays is 3 p.m., so with plans already made for a mid-day outing with my son, I picked the 2:30 to 3 p.m. delivery slot. You can also pick a time on a future date. There’s also a limit of four orders per slot, but I didn’t have any problems getting the slot I picked, even with our weekend visitor population picking up this time of the year.

I followed all the directions to complete the order, and the Web page informed me it was complete and e-mailed me a copy, confirming my selections and my pick-up time.

After our mid-day outing, I shot over to the Harris Teeter to pick things up. On the way, my cell phone beeped, indicating that I’d missed a call during our time outside and had a voicemail message. Sure enough, it was Linda, the “home shopper” at the Bayside Harris Teeter, letting me know she’d had a few problems filling my order.

Already on my way, though about 10 minutes early and having missed both of Linda’s two calls mid-day, I decided to just check in in person and see what we could do to resolve the problems. I was definitely expecting that loaf of bread and the veggie chicken slices to be out of stock.

With that complication and not knowing exactly what the pickup procedure was, I decided to park the car and introduce myself at the service counter. They paged Linda, and she quickly noted that I could have simply pulled up in the special loading area at the front of the store.

She also went on to explain the reason she’d called — they’d had their produce delivery delayed by a truck break-down, which meant that they’d been out of the sale-priced organic baby lettuce that I’d ordered. She said that she generally tries to call when there are problems filling an order as placed — especially for a first-time customer.

Linda said she’d substituted a major-label package of baby greens at the same price, which was OK with me. She’d also discovered that the online list of available items had included a sweetened version of the organic applesauce I’d ordered, when they only stocked the unsweetened version at the Bayside store. She’d substituted the latter, which I’d previously bought and had nearly purchased that morning anyway.

Also in the list of MIA items were some plain doughnuts. They’d simply run out, so she’d left them off the order. (My waistline, if not my son, thank her for that choice.) Finally, the “cream cheese wontons” I’d ordered had been discontinued. I hadn’t noticed them in the store when I was there last, so I was pleasantly surprised to find them online, but, again, my waistline won’t miss them.

That was it. Out of about 45 items, only four weren’t available, and two of those got suitable substitutions.

Certainly, with that experience behind me, I would have noted in the future for the lettuce that any organic baby greens would have been a preferred substitute and that some of the “variety pack” doughnuts would have substituted well for the plain ones. I’m sure she would have done that had I asked her in the store on Saturday or called her back before I’d arrived for the pick-up.

The Express Lane site itself allows you to agree to substitutions across the board or to specify items for which you won’t take substitutes, including the entire order. They substitute name brand items for name brand ones, and generic for generic, it notes.

But while I was off spending some quality time with my son on Saturday, Linda was off making these decisions for me, loading up a shopping cart with everything from applesauce to toilet paper. It all got bagged up in heavy-duty paper bags and was then stored in special coolers and freezers at the pick-up area at the store entrance. That was where Linda took me when I arrived, pointing out the area just outside in which I could pull my car for future pick-ups.

While she explained this to me, another shopper overheard the conversation and was impressed enough with the concept to exclaim, “That’s a great idea!” I can’t say that I disagree.

I went back out to the parking lot, got in my car and took it over to the loading area, where I parked next to the call button that, next time I use Express Lane, will page Linda right in the store to tell her I’m ready for my pick-up.

Linda loaded up my bags in the cart, brought them out to my car in the special pick-up area, opened up the back door and loaded in the bags.

“All you have to do now is take them in the house,” she said, with more enthusiasm than I felt for that pending task, which was made even easier in the end by virtue of having the bags sorted by frozen, refrigerated and pantry items.

She handed me a “customer statement” that explains which items were left off the order and which were substituted, and for what reason, as well as the final total for the order. (Oh, and the Express Lane site specifies that tipping is not permitted, so that’s a dilemma I won’t have to deal with again.) Since I’d paid online, I was ready to go, and Linda said she’d see me again soon. I think that’s pretty likely.

Just for those worried about how well Linda did picking out my bananas and such: they were medium-sized and just shy of ripe, as I’d asked. My kiwis, which I’d asked to be as close to ripe as possible, were as ripe as I usually find them at the store, or more so. The ice cream, after a 15-minute trip back from the store, was just starting to soften.

Susan pointed out when she told me about Express Lane that this service would be a great option for people vacationing in the area for a week or two, or part-time residents coming down for the weekend. Inevitably they’re going to need at least a few groceries for their stay. With Express Lane, they could place their order online from home and arrange for pick-up either on their way into town or the following morning, without ever having to get out of the car, let alone facing the maddening crowds that area grocery stores often see on a weekend morning.

The added cost of all this convenience: $4.95 — and $0 this first time. Not having to deal with a cranky toddler or crowded grocery store aisles on a Saturday at the beginning of spring: Priceless. (Now I just have to wait until he’s old enough to put the groceries away for me. That would be beyond priceless.)