Publix Super Markets Inc. has decided to pull the plug on its online shopping service after 18 unprofitable months.
"People who use it love it, but we've been unable to generate enough consistent volume to be profitable," said Shannon Patten, company spokeswoman.
The decision scuttles Publix Curbside service that operates from a Citrus Park store at 7835 Gunn Highway near Tampa plus two others in Atlanta.
Orders will be accepted through Jan. 27 and must be picked up by Jan. 28. The 20 employees who prepared orders for pickup will be transferred to other jobs within the nation's fourth-largest supermarket chain.
It was the Lakeland grocer's second strikeout in online shopping, an e-commerce service that has vexed most grocery chains except in very densely populated cities like Chicago and New York City. Publix lost $50 million on Publix Direct, a full-blown online ordering and delivery service tested in South Florida that was abandoned in 2003.
Curbside was a far less costly variation, similar to what's being tried by 60 other grocers nationally. For $7.99 an order, customers could order from Publix online and pick up their purchases at a scheduled time between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., seven days a week.
Publix, which kept the experiment alive six months longer than planned, gave up after a last-ditch effort of added marketing, social media and promotions failed to drum up more participation.
Really a high-tech form of hiring a personal shopper, Curbside was expected to appeal mostly to stay-at-home moms, shut-ins and time-pressed career people. Some loyalists, however, used it to impose budget discipline on impulse buying or said they just wanted to escape the time, hassle and stress of shopping for food.
But Publix was surprised at others who signed up, as well: hotels without catering services for business meetings, workers ordering lunch online for their entire office and celebrity chefs who cook for appearances on HSN, 25 miles away in St. Petersburg.
About 2 percent of all consumer packaged goods today are sold online, only a fifth of the amount of general merchandise, a figure Nielsen Research forecasts will double to $24 billion by 2014. But most of that has been dry groceries and items like soaps, paper products and other nonperishables. Amazon.com recently started trying to sell perishable groceries online in the Seattle area, as walmart.com has in California's Silicon Valley.
Shoppers Express, an earlier form of personal shopping and delivery that cost $9.99 per order faxed in to Winn-Dixie, Eckerd Drug and the forerunner to Sweetbay Supermarket, shut down in 1999.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.