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Is it cost-effective to buy your groceries online?

| Economic factors

“There will be no recession,” our cuddly Minister of Finance said at the beginning of the year, but even he – who can do no wrong since he rescued us from a fate worse than Des – hasn’t convinced everyone.

One woman called a radio station to say she was taking radical action against consumerism and debt by following a strict policy of not buying anything but essentials in 2016.

“Essentials” means different things to different people, of course, but her plan was to wean herself off impulse buying – for life, if possible – by not crossing the threshold of a shop of any kind from January 1 to December 31, 2016, and perhaps beyond. What she had to buy she would order online and have delivered, she said. Or, in the case of medical needs, her local pharmacy would take an order by phone, fax or email and deliver. (Both Clicks and Dis-Chem deliver medicines via or   see “Medication to your door”, below.)

Even if her belt-tightening strategy is a bit too radical for you, you might be more than ready for a vow of abstinence from supermarket shopping. How do you stick to your scribbled shopping list amid those overstocked shelves? If you are anything like me, you face the futility of list-making every time you arrive at the checkout with four times as much as you can accommodate in the single squashed plastic bag you’ve brought with you. And if your trolley is occupied by a small but enthusiastic consumer with an eye for expensive treats ... well, I rest my case. Make a list, put on a pot of coffee and get someone else to search out the items and deliver them.

But don’t expect a quick and painless experience. You have two choices when it comes to grocery shopping online: Pick n Pay and Woolworths. Checkers has not yet joined the fray and uses its website merely as an advertising medium and store locator. (See for a comprehensive list of online resources.) If you have spotted Pick n Pay’s little tuk-tuk delivery van holding up the traffic on steep hills, you’ll have a good idea of how slick the service is.

In short, both online stores do a good job of taking the pleasure out of shopping and should be applauded for that in the present economic climate. Woolworths is more likely to threaten your essentials-only resolve, because the presentation is better, while Pick n Pay will overwhelm you with options. But all praise to both stores for being pioneers in the online supermarket realm; their clunkiness will only help later-comers get it right first time.

Pick n Pay

Getting started. You have to register, providing an email address and password and your physical address and identity number. The process was not without its time-consuming glitches: I had to make up a house name to complete the physical address, because the form insisted on a name of the building, and then I had to phone the call centre to ask why the form was telling me my identity number was already in use. It turned out that it was because the registration had gone through without acknowledgement onscreen.

If you forget your password, it should be a simple matter of receiving a temporary one via email and resetting it immediately to a password of your choosing. It works – about 50 percent of the time. On every one of at least five occasions, I had to repeat the process once or twice to receive the temporary password. At least the site is consistent.

For non-technical questions, there is a useful list of FAQs relating to all aspects of the online operation, with comprehensive answers. How do prices compare with those in the bricks-and-mortar stores? The answer reassures you that prices are the same as those in the store that fulfils your order.

If you have a Pick n Pay Smart Shopper card, you can input your number and collect points on your shop and receive the benefit at the checkout of the points-value you already have – without the inconvenience of printing out a voucher in a store. As a registered Smart Shopper, you can go to the “My PnP” tab at the top right of the screen, call up all your previous online shopping lists and then re-order any one of them by clicking “Select all” to generate a new list. It was a surprise to me to find my lists of recent store-bought shopping there, too; if you want a record of your shopping for budgeting purposes, this is a very useful thing to know.

The call centre is available during shopping hours every day of the week, including Sunday.

The offering. If you want the full supermarket range of products, you’ll need to switch between six sections of the online store: “Groceries”, “Household cleaning”, “Baby”, “Health & beauty”, “Pet shop” and “Home & garden”. I looked for, and found, fresh fruit and ice cream, garden tools, frozen pet food, pool chemicals, bath foam, sandwiches and pot scourers ... No store is perfect, but this one will certainly meet most people’s requirements. If your idea of “essentials” includes Closemyer Honey Green Tea, Tipiak Express Couscous sachets, Haagen-Dazs ice cream and local Parmesan cheese, no problem. And if you’ve been hunting for ceremonial candles and disposable gloves, look no further.

This is a virtual Hypermarket, in fact, if you want to explore what’s on offer in “Sport & leisure”, “Technology”, “Large appliances”, “Toys”, “Stationery”, and “Wine & liquor”. What’s more (and this was news to me) you can do all your travel bookings – including car hire and travel insurance – through Pick n Pay Travel online and book tickets for a wide variety of (essential, of course) shows and events. Once booked, you pay for the tickets at the kiosk in your nearest store.

The home page also highlights special discounts, by region, and competitions.

Shopping experience. It’s undeniable that choosing products in this medium is tedious, partly because the website can grind very slowly, but also because it is no fun calling up things such as no-name spaghetti and kitchen towels, if online shopping has thus far been the preserve of exciting electronic goods, fashion and gourmet foods.

In the physical store you have the satisfaction of chucking things into the trolley at speed; here you are restricted by the speed of the site or your computer. It is also far more difficult to assess the range of pro-ducts that is available and compare prices before making a choice. One quick scan of a shelf will tell you a lot, whereas the online shop can fit six products on a screen, forcing you to scroll through multiple screens and pages, and through all the variations of size, quantity, colour, fragrance and price of a product. Looking for the cheapest brand of lavender-fragranced furniture polish spray? You will need to have a careful look through 47 similar spray cans.

You can refine your search to a degree, but not nearly enough, and you’d probably have to navigate the site repeatedly to learn how best to avoid looking for fresh lemons and being presented with every lemon-flavoured product in the store. However, there are times when logic fails completely – like the range of Fairies cupcakes (without pictures) that was lurking in the fresh fruit category.

As you page through, you can’t rely on pictures to be your guide; a great many products are not pictured, and when they are, the pictures reveal very little. Size can also be misleading, because a shampoo bottle holding 250ml looks the same as one holding 500ml, and a 175g yoghurt carton is hard to distinguish from a 1kg carton. So check sizes carefully before you virtually chuck them into your basket.

Most of the meat packs are not pictured, and the price is all too often given per kilogram, in which case the size and price of the pack you will receive may not be known until you receive the final invoice on the day before, or the day of, delivery. As the website explains it: “Where items are ordered by weight, your personal shopper will endeavour to provide you with an amount as close to the requested weight as possible. The actual amount you receive may exceed, or be less than, the amount requested. Please note that the price will be solely based on the actual weight of the item you receive, not the requested weight. Should the amount or the price of the delivered item be unacceptable, you may return the item (or items) with the driver for a full refund.”

Inevitably, after you’ve popped a few old favourites into your virtual basket, you will come across something that is less familiar and needs a description, or pro-duct details. It is a major drawback of the site that no information is given except the name, weight or volume, and price. And even the names are not always strictly accurate: “chicken tikka with pilau rice” is represented as “chicken tika masala rice”. The pack is pictured, but not so that the description printed on the front of it is legible.

Display is clearly a challenge for an online store of this size, but surely it is obvious that customers who cannot pick things up and read labels need product details? If you are attracted to the Clover Italian Lemon Dessert (140ml at R32.99) or a pack of six I&J Tasty Fish Cakes (300g for R24.99), you cannot check the ingredients list to find out how much sugar, salt, fat or carbohydrate they contain. Or whether there is real lemon in that dessert.

Goods displayed on the website are not necessarily available, and you may or may not be notified while you have a chance to choose something else. A bag of pasta was flagged immediately as out of stock, and I was able to search for a substitute, but when it came to a pack of fresh meat, there was no notification until I was at the checkout, ready to pay.

You are offered the option of having substitutions made for you if a product turns out to be unavailable after you’ve completed your shopping, but you can also tick the “no substitutions” box if you prefer not to take that risk. Pick n Pay doesn’t take the money from your card until the order has been fulfilled (on the day before, or the day of, delivery), so you pay only for what you receive.

At the checkout, there was another wrinkle in the process: I reviewed the order and chose a delivery slot … and there the process came to a halt and I was back on the home page. Had the order gone through?

Had I failed to notice that it was a pay-on-delivery system? I called the customer service number again and was swiftly directed to the payment page to complete the order.

Payment. Payment is by credit card or a debit card with a signature and a CVV number on the back. If you are going to use the website regularly, you can store your card details in a secure PayU wallet to speed up the payment process.

PayU is a Naspers-owned e-payment system that boasts (on its website) of a presence in 16 countries and a list of clients that includes some airlines, DStv and various retailers, such as Dion Wired, the Foschini Group stores and Dis-Chem.

Delivery. Yes, there is a delivery charge – in fact, a choice of three charges: R50, R75 or R90, depending on the delivery time slot you choose, but regardless of the size of the order. So big orders are definitely best value, and if you do a routine monthly shop for more or less the same products, you can just repeat or amend a previous order and avoid the laborious selection process (see above).

Free delivery is offered from time to time, so it’s worth keeping your eye on the website if you would like to use the service, but not at a price.

Delivery hours are Monday to Saturday between 10am and 8pm, and each time slot is, conveniently, just an hour long, with 11pm to 12pm and 3pm to 4pm the cheapest. I booked a R50 slot between 3pm and 4pm on a Saturday and the tuk-tuk delivery van was bang on time. I chose the “no plastic bags” option, so the goods arrived in three sealed plastic bins, which I emptied while the driver waited.

The frozen and perishable goods (including ice cream and meat) were covered with ice packs and in good condition … perhaps slightly better condition than they might have been in if I’d driven them home in my car on a hot day.

You receive an email confirmation of your order, with an order number, and an SMS reminder on the day asking you to be sure that an adult will be present at the address to receive the delivery.

Pick n Pay also has a fledgling “Click and collect” option, if you want to avoid the delivery charge and fetch your shopping from a store. So far, the choice of stores is very limited: four in the Western Cape, five in Gauteng and two in KwaZulu-Natal, for example. But it’s a start – and collecting online purchases is a very popular option in countries such as the United Kingdom, where online shopping is well established and competition ensures that delivery is free.

Returns and refunds. An item can be returned to the driver upon delivery – for example, if an unwanted substitution has been made, if you think a product is defective, or even if you have changed your mind. In that case, as long as the product is in good condition and in its original packaging, you will be refunded through the card you paid with within 48 hours of the product arriving back in the store.

After delivery, returns must be made at a store, where the same conditions apply as would apply to a store-bought item.

You need to present the original invoice and return the goods within 10 days of purchase. Refunds are done via the card used for the purchase.

Overall impression. This is a useful, if clunky, service and it could be indispensable if you are unable to get to a supermarket for one reason or another. It is best suited to large, routine, repeat orders of goods you know well, because the delivery fee does not increase with order size and you can save yourself a lot of trouble by amending a previous order.

If you need to find out what a product is used for, how to use it, or what it contains, or if you want see fresh foods before you buy them, it is probably better to visit a store in person.


Getting started. You need to register, providing your name, email address and cellphone number, and will be asked to create a password. (If you forget the password in future, a temporary one arrives in your inbox immediately.)

If you have a WReward card, the benefits accrue automatically and you receive extra discounts if you use a Woolies credit card to pay your bill.

The call-centre number should be displayed much more prominently on all pages (you have to search for “Contact us” among the quick links at the bottom of the home page), but when you get through, the service is efficient – perhaps because the same person seems to answer all calls and remembers you … could there be just one staff member answering calls?

The offering. The website is more attractive than Pick n Pay’s and it is not exclusive to the food store; you can include items from the homeware, beauty, baby goods and gifts departments. There is also a financial services section on the website, offering the Woolies credit card and reward cards, plus personal loans and insurance.

From the home page, you can go straight to a “What’s new” section, to see what Woolies has added to its food range, or you can focus on shopping for bargains by having a look at “This week’s offers”, “Eat in for under R200” and the discounts being offered to WRewards cardholders on that particular day.

The seasons and occasions such as Valentine’s Day are highlighted as an opportunity to market the appropriate products. If you are in search of ideas, you can click on the “Recipes” tab and find lunch-box ideas, recipes for seasonal foods, cooking hints and tips, and so on.

As with any individual store, you may not find everything you’ve ever bought from Woolworths, but you won’t be disappointed by the selection – there is plenty of everything. I found most of my personal favourites, including luxuries such as pine nuts and haloumi cheese. The two things I couldn’t get were prepared foods that can be hard to find at my local store – which was presumably where my online order was coming from.

The “My account” section of the website keeps a record of all your previous purchases, so you can re-order, and you can create one or more labelled shopping lists for future reference and add products from the lists to your shopping basket to minimise the need to search.

A gift registry facility is listed on the site, but has been discontinued both online and in stores.

Shopping experience. Woolworths has the advantage of a much smaller range of goods, so the display is considerably better, bigger and brighter, and you’ll get through your list more rapidly when you don’t have 47 varieties of furniture polish spray to choose from. Inevitably, the websites of these two online shops reflect the character of the bricks-and-mortar stores: Woolworths wooing the discerning consumer, Pick n Pay more utilitarian.

The problem with both online operations is that you can only shop as quickly as the website and the technology allow, and that sometimes seemed very slow. On the Woolworths site, the “Quick view” of a product would take 15 seconds to download, which is a long time when you have a shopping list to get through. Some pages wouldn’t download at all on first or second attempt. On the other hand, searching is well organised and intuitive on this site, and refining your search is simple using the “Show me” list on the left of every page.

Every item is photographed and the product information is very detailed, whether you are looking at a pack of free-range eggs or a triple-chocolate sundae for one: click on the product and you get a description of it and access to the ingredients, nutritional information, allergens and storage instructions.

I wondered what could be said about six free-range eggs … plenty as it turned out. Description: “Use our free-range large eggs for cooking or baking. The vegetarian diet of grains and pulses that our free-range hens feed freely on contains no artificial colourants, so their egg yolk colour varies.” This is followed by nutrition details and, under “Allergens” and “Ingredients” you are assured that this product contains egg.

Meat packs are pictured and sold in average weights, so you have a good idea what you’re getting, and prepared foods are described well – for example, the macaroni cheese with bolognese sauce (R41.95) is described as “fresh macaroni with slow-cooked beef bolognese and cheese sauce. Our pasta is made with durum wheat and free-range eggs and our sauce is made with beef and sun-ripened tomatoes.”

Payment. There are plenty of opportunities to review your purchases and delete or add products – or cancel the entire order – before the point of no return. All credit cards are accepted at the virtual till, and if you use your Woolies card, you get 15 percent off all WRewards items immediately. You can store your card details securely on the site if you wish to.

If your order is a gift, you have the opportunity to include a message to the recipient. If you are a WRewards member, you receive the same discounts on your online shopping as you’d get in-store.

Delivery. There’s nothing on the website promising free delivery for the first order, so when there was no charge, I proceeded under the impression that delivery was a free service. Imagine my surprise when the second delivery had a price of R50 attached. The call centre confirmed that only the first order is free and, depending where you live relative to the nearest Woolworths store, the delivery charge ranges from R50 to R95 – but there may be no charge on very large orders. The time slots are 10am to 1pm, 2pm to 5pm and 6pm to 8pm, Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, the morning and afternoon slots are available, and Sunday delivery is limited to the morning.

There is no same-day delivery, but food and flowers can be delivered the next morning, if the order is received in the afternoon. According to the website: “If your order includes both food and non-food items, you can choose to have your order delivered all together, or have your food items delivered earlier if you wish.”

You can choose to receive your shopping in bags or in a box, which you will need to unpack on delivery, and you can choose to receive substitutions for anything that is not available.

Returns and refunds. Unlike Pick n Pay, Woolworths does not accept returns via the delivery driver; you must return items in a saleable condition to any store within 60 days of purchase.

If you can present the original tax invoice (which is the online despatch note you receive by email the day before, or on the day of, delivery), you will receive a full refund via the card used for the purchase. If you haven’t got the tax invoice or despatch note, you will receive the price at the time of the return (that is, if the item is on sale, you will receive the sale price) or you can exchange the item.

Overall impression. This is a good service, delivered by a smart, all-black, branded delivery van that won’t do your reputation any harm in your neighbourhood. As with Pick n Pay, you’ll want to make your order substantial enough to justify the delivery fee – and if you’re lucky, you might find out what the threshold is for the fee being waived.

It’s good to know that you can have food, flowers and wine delivered as gifts, and that you don’t have to miss out on Woolworths’s specialities if you are unable to get to a store.


You can have most household necessities delivered by Pick n Pay and Woolworths, but if you need prescribed medicines, you’ll have to arrange delivery from your local pharmacy (if you have an account there), or you can turn to Clicks or Dis-Chem.

Clicks Direct Medicines is part of the Clicks Group and operates the website, which claims to be the first and most far-reaching courier pharmacy in the country. Delivery of medicines is free and can be scheduled at regular intervals. In fact, if you forget to renew your supply of a medicine, you will be reminded when Clicks sends you an automatic alert for the next delivery.

A helpful call-centre representative emailed me an application form within minutes, but you can opt to receive it by fax or post. Having provided your personal details, details of your medical scheme and a copy of your prescription(s) (again by email, fax or post), you are ready to schedule delivery for regular intervals – for example, every 28 days for a monthly prescription. Clicks will alert you to the next delivery by text message and deliver between 8am and 4pm on the appropriate weekday (there are no deliveries on weekends). If you are not within reach of a delivery service, you can still receive a reminder and fetch your medication from the nearest Clicks pharmacy.

The service is a preferred provider of many medical schemes and can supply simple and highly specialised medicines, according to the website.

Dis-Chem’s online store offers a delivery service for chronic medication that is free if you live within 50km of a store. If you live further away, there is a charge of R60.

You need to lodge your prescription(s) and personal details with your nearest store, as you would do at any pharmacy, and then you can arrange to have the medication delivered.

If you have been fetching your medication in person, you can switch to delivery at any time by filling in an online form, which will prompt a return call or email from the mail-order department.

Dis-Chem delivers orders from the online store at the flat rate of R60, unless you spend R600 or more, in which case the delivery fee is waived. You can buy everything from food supplements to face creams and have them delivered within three to five days, but a call-centre representative said it was not yet possible to combine medication deliveries with online store deliveries.

This article was first published in the second quarter 2016 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

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