Two yellow bananas and three green?
When Giant Eagle recently ran a two-week employee-only test of its new Curbside Express service -- shoppers place an order online and then pick it up at the store -- someone gave exact instructions on how ripe each of the bananas should be.
Now that the O'Hara grocer is opening up the service to any customer willing to swing by its Market District store in Robinson, effective Monday, the staff will learn if that kind of quirkiness is the norm or just a challenge dreamed up by a mischievous co-worker.
There's enough learning still to do with this venture that Giant Eagle hasn't committed to expanding the service to any more stores. Its e-commerce partner, MyWebGrocer of Winooski, Vt., is already working with numerous other grocers around the country, and the industry seems to be trying to get out ahead of major online players, such as Amazon, that have been experimenting in the grocery aisle.
Shoppers are increasingly enamored with the ease of shopping online and enabled with smartphones and tablets that let them do it almost everywhere -- shop at your daughter's softball game? Why not?
Eventually, Giant Eagle might even consider adding a home delivery service for online customers, but that would depend on the success of projects such as Curbside Express.
The first question is how willing people are to pay $4.95 per shopping trip for someone else to choose their groceries and get the bags to the car.
"We wanted to start with one store and determine, can you scale it up? Is there demand for it?" said Rob Borella, senior director, marketing for Giant Eagle, as he walked the Robinson store last week behind the two full-time store team members assigned to the service. Decked out in bright green T-shirts with "You Click, We Pick" on the back, they were demonstrating how they pull orders off the computer and fill them.
To get the process started, customers go to the company's website, set up accounts online and then scroll down lists of options for, say, tomatoes, hamburger, jellies, jams and cleaning products. Late last week, not everything had an accompanying photo, but the company was working on it.
There's a place for notes with each product. That's where lots of people seem to explain how they like their bananas, said Jackie Brown, as she was searching through bunches of the fruit to fill an order that had been downloaded onto her handheld device.
She and co-worker Kaleigh Podgorski had put three paper grocery bags into a shopping cart and were slowly filling them. The system attempts to send the workers through the store in the most efficient manner, accounting for chilled or frozen items to be pulled toward the end.
The device doesn't always know a particular store well, but Ms. Podgorski noted the employees can make corrections as they walk the store. They scanned each item as they pulled it, allowing the system to both check it off and confirm its place on the bill.
Ms. Brown stood in line at the seafood counter along with the rest of the customers, waiting for two pounds of farm-raised salmon at $5.99 a pound.
At this point, Mr. Borella said the company doesn't know what the average order size will be or how long it will take to fill each one. In addition to the two full-time team members, Giant Eagle has assigned 10 part-time employees to spend some time on the service.
Customers placing orders can choose pickup slots that start at 11 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. A customer who wants to pick up in the 6:30 to 7 p.m. slot would have to order by 2:30 p.m. that day, but orders also can be placed for the next day.
By limiting the numbers of orders accepted for each half-hour slot, the retailer hopes to avoid rushes that strain the available resources. Once an order is collected, the dry goods are labeled and stacked on shelving by the front door, while locked refrigerators and freezers nearby hold the cold items.
Sale prices in the store show up on the website, too, although an order placed Tuesday and picked up Thursday will not get promotions that expire Wednesday. Advantage card holders will get fuelperks! gas credits, just not on the $4.95 service fee. If a customer arrives to pick up the groceries with a handful of coupons, the retailer will take them.
Giant Eagle did some of its research by talking with other grocers. The company is part of a collaborative practices group with Harris Teeter, a Charlotte, N.C., grocery chain that has had its own version of the pick-up service since 2000. That company's Express Lane Online Shopping service is now in 96 stores, up 30 percent in the last year, according to a spokeswoman who said use builds over time as customers get comfortable with it.
Industrywide, online grocery shopping has gone through fits and starts for the past decade or more as issues with technology, product choice, delivery systems, even customer acceptance tripped up various efforts.
Creating a strong e-commerce offering makes sense. "I think it's just a natural evolution of all the tools we've put together," Mr. Borella said.
Certainly the retailer is battling competition from all sides.
In a late 2011 presentation to investors, officials at Delhaize Group estimated Giant Eagle had 45 percent market share in the Pittsburgh area and a primary focus on quality. They thought that signaled opportunity for their low-price, limited-selection store format, Bottom Dollar Food.
A number of those have opened here in recent months, joining with retailers ranging from Aldi to Wal-Mart, Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Target battling with more traditional grocers such as Shop 'n Save, Foodland and Kuhn's for market share.
Giant Eagle's Curbside Express service may appeal to parents with small children or busy families with little time for shopping, Mr. Borella said. Or other types of customers may be looking for a service like this.
The plan is to watch what happens and adapt as needed. If there's demand for longer hours, say, that could happen. Or maybe more people will want to shop earlier.
The grocer has proven it can be patient. It began testing a smaller format grocery store named Giant Eagle Express in Harmar in 2007. Mr. Borella said construction has just begun on the second Express store, which is expected to open later this year in Indiana, Pa.
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-263-2018.