Busy families get help from personal shoppers


INDIANAPOLIS Joelee Smith starts her mornings by sending busy parents the best text messagethey’ll see all day.

“Hi, this is Joelee,” she types on her phone. “I’ll be your shopper today. If you think of one or two items you forgot, I’ll grab them.”

Then Smith hits the aisles ofanIndianapolis-area Meijer, filling up a cart with groceries, standing in line for deli orders and searching for bananas that arethe exact shade of green or yellow that a customer wants and, if she can’t find them, she’ll ask store employees to look in the back. After grabbing everything she needs, Smith loads the groceries in her car and delivers them to someone’s home.


Smith isa courier for a startup calledShipt,one of several fledgling companies navigating the final frontier of online shopping: grocery delivery. As consumers have grown accustomed to ordering books, mattresses, underwear, razors and virtually everything else online, groceries have remained a tough sell because of logistical challenges and customers’ unique preferences for perishable goods.

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Is Amazon getting too big?

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Walmart isn't trying to buy Whole Foods

But the growth of online grocery shopping is expected to accelerate in the coming years, especially ifAmazon.com Inc.completes its acquisitionof Whole Foods Market Inc. That deal, announced in June, would put more pressure ongrocery chains and startups to win over customers beforeAmazon has a chance to dominate yet another retail category.


The Midwest has been slower to adopt delivery than cities on the East and West coasts. But options have been increasing. Grocers Meijer and Fresh Thyme have launched delivery services, joining companies such as Peapod and Green Bean, which have brought groceries to Indianapolis-area customersfor several years.

Meijer last year formed a partnership with Shipt, which is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala., and hires workers on a contract basis akin to ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft.Meijer and Shiptbegan offering the service to Indianapolis-area shoppers in Ap ril.


Smith, who also works a full-time job caring for adults with disabilities,has made hundreds of deliveries while working for Shipt.

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Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery. The shoppers clear the items on their phones as they go along.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenGroceries are gathered at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, Groceries are gathered at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenSeen through a refrigerator with condensation, Joelee Seen through a refrigerator with condensation, Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers place orders through a Shipt app and their shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery. The shoppers check off things on the app as they go.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, Centerfirst, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery. The shoppers clear the items on their phones as they go along.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local company, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers place orders through a Shipt app and their shoppers do the shopping and delivery. Smith and other shoppers wait in line and check out just like other customers.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, puts groceries in her car, Joelee Smith, with Shipt, puts groceries in her car, at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday, June 29, 2017, to deliver to a Shipt client. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, grabs groceries to deliver Joelee Smith, with Shipt, grabs groceries to deliver to a local business, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers, like Smith, do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, delivers groceries to a local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, delivers groceries to a local business, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers, like Smith, do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, with Shipt, delivers groceries to a local Joelee Smith, with Shipt, delivers groceries to a local business, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers, home or business, place orders through a Shipt app and Shipt shoppers, like Smith, do the shopping and delivery.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenJoelee Smith, left, with Shipt, delivers groceries Joelee Smith, left, with Shipt, delivers groceries to Centerfirst, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Meijer customers place orders through a Shipt app and their shoppers, like Smith, do the shopping and delivery. Renee Turner, right, with Centerfirst, will put away the foods that is used for their staff.  Kelly Wilkinson/IndyStarFullscreenLike this topic? You may also like these photo galleries:ReplayJoelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local1 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local2 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local3 of 15Groceries are gathered at the 96th St. Meijer, Thursday,4 of 15Seen through a refrigerator with condensation, Joelee5 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local6 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local7 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local8 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local9 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, shops for groceries for local10 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, puts groceries in her car,11 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, grabs groceries to deliver12 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, delivers groceries to a local13 of 15Joelee Smith, with Shipt, delivers groceries to a local14 of 15Joelee Smith, left, with Shipt, delivers groceries15 of 15AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext Slide


“I get a lot of grateful customers,” Smith said. “When I started doing this, I thought I’d be doing this for the elderly, people who can’t get out. It turns out it’s a lot of young families, young moms with young kids. It’s so much to take toddlers to the store and so I get there, and these parents, these moms, are like, ‘Oh my God, thank you so much.'”

Meijer is offering delivery to 582,000 Indianapolis-area households through Shipt.Art Sebastian, Meijer’s director of digital shopping, declined to provide performance numbers on the chain’s delivery businessbut said the company has been “pleasantly surprised” by demand.


“Our only goal right now is to make it available to all of our customers,” Sebastian said. “If you look at what we’ve done in the last few months, we’ve been moving aggressively to make (delivery) available to all customers in the Midwest.”

Meijer is not the only grocery chain partneringwith an outside company to launch delivery services. Fresh Thyme in October started delivering its products through Amazon Prime Now, the one- and two-hour delivery service that’s available to Prime members.

Fresh Thyme CEOChris Sherrell in October called the partnership a “huge step in better serving our communities.” Fresh Thyme declined comment for this article.


It’s unclear whether Amazon would continue to partner with companies such as Fresh Thyme after it acquires Whole Foods. An Amazon spokeswoman said the company will “continue to expand the service rapidly and add more selection from local stores and restaurants for Prime members.”

While Amazon has been dabbling in grocery delivery for about a decade, buyingWhole Foods would shake up a business that’s still in its infancy.John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Edu cation and Research in Retailing in Indiana Universitys Kelley School of Business, said any grocery chain that doesn’t already offer delivery should move that up on its priority list.


“The Amazon-Whole Foods (deal) is probably going to accelerate the attention that grocers are focusing on delivery,” he said. “Whatever the pace was, it probably just picked up.”

Amazon has “essentially infinite resources,” Talbott said, notingthe company remains a Wall Street darling despite almost never turning a profit.Amazon’s size anddistribution capacity make it a threat to smaller companies that already have maturedelivery businesses.

“The Amazon-Whole Foods (deal) is probably going to accelerate the attention that grocers are focusing on delivery. Whatever the pace was, it probably just picked up.”


John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing in Indiana Universitys Kelley School of Business

Bean L LC, an Indianapolis company, has been delivering fresh produce from Midwest farms for about a decade. Green Bean CEO Matt Ewer said increasing competition, including from Amazon, has the potential to drive down prices in a business that already has a razor-thin profit margin.

“Companies are seeing more and more competition, but there’s also a price-point competition,” Ewer said. “(Companies) are selling products cheaper and trying to compete with one another.”


The key for smaller companies such as Green Bean is to differentiate themselves from Amazon, he said. Green Bean seeks to do that by sharing its local bona fides. The companybuys its products from farms in nearby towns including Sheridan and Mason, Ohio. Ewer is an Indiana University graduate.

“I think it’s important to understand not only what products you’re buying, but also think about who owns that grocery store and are they local community members as well,” Ewer said.

Green Bean also has been investing in technology, releasing a new app earlier this year. In addition to Indianapolis, the company delivers food in Louisville, Ky., St. Louis, Cincinnatiand Columbus, Ohio.


Skokie, Ill.-based Peapod Inc. has been delivering groceries in Indianapolis since 2010.Carrie Bienkowski, Peapod’s chief marketing officer, said longevity has positioned the company to compete against newcomers.

“We have already spent decades mastering how to deliver food successfully and efficiently to peoples homes,” Bienkowski said.

The company is generating “double-digit new customer growth in our markets,” she said. Those markets include several large and midsized cities in the Midwest and on the East Coast.


“While the past few years have seen new players in the online delivery space, we actually think thats proof of the rising interest from consumers and are excited to continue to do what we do well,” Bienkowski said.

Grocery delivery remains a sm all slice of the e-commerce pie which, itself, is a small, yet growing, percentage of all retail activity.

E-commerce sales in the U.S. topped $340 billion in 2015, accounting for7.2%of total retail, according toU.S. Census Bureau data. Areport by Nielsen and the Food Marketing Instituteprojects that online grocery shopping could become a $100 billion business by 2025.


For the grocery business, major change has been a long time coming. The most-discussed trends in the Indianapolis market lately havebeen the dominance of Kroger Co. and thelong decline and bankruptcy of Marsh.

“Really, grocery hasn’t innovated in 150 years,” said IU’s Talbott. “I think Amazon will push the envelope and ultimately make it better for consumers. I think they’ve compelled a lot of others to up their game in terms of consumer experience.”

But major grocery chains are taking a cautious approach to delivery. Neither Kroger nor Wal-Mart Stores Inc., t he first- and second-largest grocers in Indianapolis, have started offering delivery options. But both chains are touting programs that let customers place orders in advance and pick up groceries at the store.

“The Kroger team is continuing to study the delivery concept, but right now we have no plans to launch such a program,”Kroger’s Central Division said in a statement to IndyStar. “If customers like that service as much as they like ClickList (where shoppers can order groceries online and have their order waiting at the store), it will be a hit whenever it starts.”

Meanwhile, Meijer is the latest company to start delivering groceries in Indianapolis. The Grand Rapids, Mich., chain is not only acclimating more people to grocery delivery, but also creating jobs opportunities through Shipt.

Julie Coop, Shipt’s chief marketing officer, said the company encourages people to use Shipt “as a side hustle.”

That has worked for Smith, 47, who, in add ition to her full-time job, will work up to 30 hours a week through Shipt and has earned as much as $600 in a week delivering Meijer groceries. Smith had never worked in the grocery business before, but thought she couldput her grocery knowledge built on years of shopping for her family to use.

“I try to keep the produce together. Of course, I don’t put the tomatoes on the bottom,” she said. “It’s just common sense for when you’re grocery shopping. I treat it how I would do my own grocery shopping.”

Follow James Briggs on Twitter:@JamesEBriggs