Saturday, March 30, 2013

The good, the bad, and the ugly of Fresh Direct

People like to say that you can get anything delivered in Manhattan. I think they say this to avoid saying something more important: getting stuff into your apartment is a huge pan in the ass.
My car (beloved replacement of a previous car) lives in a near-ish garage, rides up an elevator to a grubby and cramped parking spot, and costs as much to keep in the city as anyone might pay for an apartment in someplace less ridiculous. Driving anywhere around here is almost always unnecessary, and almost always fraught with peril, so I see my car once a week or less, when I go to the country to ride horses. For the purposes of running errands, I schlepp like other New Yorkers and I buy things and have them delivered.
I can carry four very full bags of groceries if I can pack them myself in canvas bags and use my folding luggage cart. Grocery checkers in New York City realize that those of us who come with bags and carts of our own expect to pack ourselves, so the smart ones stand back and let us do it. The walk home is tricky, though, since there are so many kinds of pavement in my neighborhood (cracked, smooth, asphalt, granite, old granite, cobblestones) and then there are all the manholes. Finally there is a high curb on my block that must be navigated. Usually, I have the whole thing tip over at some point.
One expensive grocery store will deliver everything except the frozen food for a minor fee, though they often have a five hour backlog, which requires planning ahead by half a day. If I can plan ahead by a bit more, I can order my groceries from, and they will be delivered to the counter of my kitchen for the same fee and will arrive within a pre-arranged window of my choosing, about 1 ½ hours long.
The good things about Fresh Direct are centered on the convenience of it.  You can work from a list; you can search on an item by name from the comfort of your chair.  They remember that you like Newman’s Own Pink Lemonade and show it to you whenever you ask for lemonade. When eggs arrive broken, you send an email and they give you credit immediately. They have most of the staples you might need, and many of the cleaning supplies.
The bad things about Fresh Direct are many little things.  Because you do not choose your produce, your eight yams may range in size and shape making them hard to peel and handle.  A couple of your pears will be misshapen and unappealing. They choose huge bananas, and you can’t ask for smaller ones.  Since you do not actually see the items you are buying, the packages of bacon may be just the sort of all-white, fatty, broken slices that you would set aside while you looked for pink ones.  Quantities are sometimes not apparent, so when you casually click on four non-fat vanilla yogurts, they might be 32 ounce containers instead of the expected 8 ounce containers.  How many jalapenos is ¼ pound? Fragile things like bananas come carefully wrapped in a layer of plastic foam packing material which was probably never intended for use on food and certainly doesn’t protect from bruising. Once you’ve bought something a couple of times, the site calls it your “fave” and highlights it with a star, even if it really isn’t your “fave.” Eggs are more expensive and often arrive broken.  FreshDirect doesn’t have everything I want (rooibos tea, Shout Color-Catching sheets, organic buttermilk), and while I can request as many items as I want with their handy form, I feel like I’m shouting into a well. Everything comes in cardboard boxes that must be broken down and recycled. 
Things get downright ugly when items are suddenly not available and so are not delivered, leaving you without any Italian sausage when you are making marinara. You do get an email telling you that you will receive credit for the missing items, but at that point you might be so peeved that you have to go out and buy a replacement that you come close to sending an all-caps reply. One night I got an email saying that “due to a power outage your order was cancelled,” and went on to describe the simple steps for placing the same order. As it was, I was leaving town the next day and could not get a new delivery window, so I did fire off an angry email. For my trouble I got a hefty discount.
My biggest problem with shopping for groceries online is that there is no store to walk through, so I consistently forget things I would ordinarily not miss. I want a 3D store, with a tiny 3D shopping-me who can walk the aisles, see the cauliflower and the Rice Chex, and hold the orange juice carton in her hand. 

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