I have been using Harris Teeter’s Express Lane Online Shopping pickup service for several months now, and I will never go back to doing my weekly shopping routine in-store (yes, it is COMPLETELY worth it and NOT expensive for even a nonexistent budget – and I’ll explain why below). But, it could be better. Like most things the experience is only as good as the people running it, and I’ve experienced both extremes.
For the purpose of this review, the grocery store that I use is Stone Ridge’s Harris Teeter in Aldie, just outside South Riding and Chantilly. Each Harris Teeter has a similar setup, which includes a dedicated “Express Lane” directly in front of the building with a push button call box.
The process is very simple:
- Pull up
- Push the button
- Wait for someone to respond
- They’ll ask your name
- Wait 5-10 minutes for them to collect your groceries from the fridges and freezers, and come out
- Pay using their hand held card swiper (you sign with your finger)
- Pop the trunk and they load your groceries – you never have to get out of your car!
Pro Tip: I’ve found it’s often easier to go around the back of Harris Teeter so you’re pulling into the lane from the right side of the store. For example the main entrance to the shopping plaza is on the left side of the center, but if I drive way around to the far entrance I can just drive right on up to the lane… versus battling it out in the parking lot wars with 1,000 other minivans and wagons. If you have the option – totally do it. It’s so much better to just slide on in to the lane and avoid all the nonsense.
Why it’s worth the $4.95/trip fee or the $100/yearly subscription
Okay I’ll admit it – when I first tried out the service (first time is free) I was very skeptical. But I had started dreading going to the grocery store because my daughter was almost 2 and keeping her entertained while I did a week’s worth of shopping for three people was becoming impossible. I inevitably forgot something (usually recipe critical), and we were both exhausted by the time we got home. Trips always took at least an hour, my average bill was $100-120, and while the staff at the South Riding Food Lion are amazing (they really are – good people and actually helpful) I was always just so deflated by the time I got home. Out the window went any hope of doing meal prep for the latest diet I was trying, and while I managed to get the frozen and refrigerated items put away, canned and produce goods usually sat for an hour… or until the munchkin went to bed… and maybe not until the next morning.
Now before you scoff at the price, consider what that $5 is getting you… and more importantly what that $100/year is getting you – because this isn’t going to save you money if you pay $4.95 each time you go and use the service the way I do.
For $5 I’m getting:
- An hour of my life back, at least once a week – worth way more to me than $5 after commuting to D.C. every day!
(This includes accounting for the time spent online shopping and picking up.)
- No one wants to kill each other. I get to go home, put everything away, and still have time to go hang out with my kid – and everyone is still in a good mood.
- Less aggravation. Someone else can hunt down the random organic red quinoa I need for a new recipe.
- More selection. Okay you’re not actually getting more products than they have in store – but when you run a search you see EVERYTHING they have associated with that keyword. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found better options that I never knew they had just because I had everything in one place.
- Phone time. You usually get between 5 and 10 minutes while you’re sitting there waiting for your groceries to come out, which gives you quiet time to respond to emails, make quick calls, or troll Facebook.
- There’s no tipping! I’ve asked several times and everyone has said there’s no expectation of tipping. It makes sense though – the person loading up your groceries isn’t necessarily the person who shopped for your food.
The right way to use the service
- Get the yearly service. You’ll see why in the next section, but you don’t want to be spending $5 each time you go anyway. If you stick with it, you’ll go an average of 52 times a year, which would make the total cost far greater than $100 ($4.95 * 52 is $257.40). But I’ll admit it is easier to digest $4.95 than $100 so do what makes sense for your family. We used it for about 2 months at $4.95/trip before we bit the bullet and bought the yearly subscription. And when we did we realized we could use the service to do basic trips like milk and pizza runs. It not only became more flexible for us to use, but we could go more often for our regular trips too – and that’s where we ended up REALLY saving money.
- Which brings us to our next tip – only buy what you need for 2-3 days. When I go I only spend about $15-40 dollars depending on what we’ve run out of. That amounts to about $30-80 a week – which is at least $40 less than our normal weekly cost! Now that adds up!
How it saves you money
- Look, Harris Teeter is not the cheapest store around, but doing shopping this way means there is almost no impulse buying. And by impulse buying I’m not talking about that magazine off the rack at checkout – I’m referring to all that food you buy that you “know you’ll eat,” or “Suzy loves those animal crackers…” and whatever other excuse I’ve used 100 times. All those purchases add up so quickly it’s crazy. And because you’re not exposed to seeing hundreds of items at a glance you aren’t tempted to just throw something in the cart. And neither are your family members who come along – looking at you hubby.
- Meal planning is so much easier. Once you have your meal plan/list, it’s just a matter of buying the items. It literally takes 10 minutes to place an entire order start to finish.
- Only buying for 2-3 days cuts down dramatically on waste. And because you’re not spending an hour each time you go, you’re more willing to go back and buy a few groceries at a time. So buying only what you need instead of guessing for the future saves you down the line – by a lot. For example I never know if I have to stay late in D.C. for work, and if I do I have to buy food while I’m there. When that happens I’m essentially buying food twice, and the food I already bought won’t necessarily last until the next chance I have to cook. So by only buying a few days a time I can cut down dramatically on “missed” food, and so much less goes in the wastebasket.
- Budgeting is easier. As you shop you see a running tally of your cart – you always know how much you’re spending. And their cart system makes it so easy to knock a $70 bill down to $35 by just removing stuff you know you can just push off until the next visit.
- Also I have always passed over the prepared foods counters, but again seeing the packaged salads next to the search for romaine lettuce make me consider spending $4 for a salad that’s already made, versus $15 for all the ingredients to make 4 of my own. It makes you a better shopper, saves you prep time, and as I said before it can cut down dramatically on waste. Sometimes (not always) it’s better to just buy the prepared items and not lose the money in the leftover salad parts that are shoved in the back of the crisper.
- Sale prices are always clear and apparent as you shop, because they are marked on each item versus a group of items in the store. You can see how much you’re saving and BOGO sales (buy one, get one) are clearly marked as half price items. You can shop through their weekly flyer as well, much like Target.com does, which allows you to still take advantage of the great sales without the in-store treasure hunt.
How it saves you time
- Your shopping time is cut down by at least 75%.
- You get back the time you’re waiting in your car for the groceries to come out. I either use it to read or make quick calls.
- When you buy fewer groceries at a time, the time to put things away turns into a blink of an eye instead of a “process.”
Things they really could fix
90% of the time this place is awesome, but recently I’ve begun to experience some nagging issues that they could fix in a heartbeat.
- Other shoppers using the lane as a place to park to wait for their spouse or friend to come out of the store. Recently I had to park behind someone, get out, and walk around them to the call box to request service.
- The call box is “broken” a lot. To be fair someone did run it over several months ago (apparently someone had too much fun at Glory Days), but it’s since been repaired. It seems like a third of the time no one answers when I push the button. So I wait and push it again a few minutes later. Let me put it this way, it’s bad enough that I keep the store’s number in my phone so I can call them to come out with my groceries. That seems highly unacceptable to me since the whole point of the service is to deliver prompt service and save the customers’ time.
- The shopper staff is getting worse. When the service started there was such a huge corporate push that the store really made this massive effort to ensure things were spot on with the service. Some of the shoppers would even throw things like animal crackers into our order when they saw we were buying a ton of baby food packets. Those little touches made big impressions, and they were very easy to do on their part. The people who came out to the car were also much friendlier (and then it was an even split of teens and older employees). Now it’s just kind of what you’d expect when you go the grocery store. Semi-bored workers who seem annoyed to be there. Now once in awhile I’ll get someone who was there when I started using the service and I know things will be upbeat. But yesterday I had a very nice teenage boy who was being trained and did the transaction side with me, and then there was a seemingly annoyed teenage girl loading up the trunk (I got the sense she didn’t want to be training him). The call box also didn’t work that trip. Neither of these things would ever prevent me from using the service, but it could have been so much better. I still saved a ton of time and money, (two VERY important things to me) but it’s back to just being a chore instead of an expected positive experience.
- They should really setup a carport-style shelter. Not only might it deter non-express lane shoppers from using the lane, but their workers wouldn’t have to stand out in the rain. Even if they built something on the backside of the building where people could just drive up, be relatively sheltered, and collect their orders – now that would be amazing. I mean heck, even McDonald’s puts awnings over their drive-thru windows.
Overall I have to say this service is completely worth it. It saves us so much money and so much time over and over again. We eat better (because we buy less junk), we spend more time together as a family, and we spend so much less on groceries that the slightly higher Harris Teeter prices don’t bother us at all.
I would LOVE to hear about your experiences and ideas for the Express Lane pickup!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!