Sunday, June 11, 2000

PULFER: Playing 'Let's Make a Deal'




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        It is bad enough when you buy a car, tormenting yourself with the suspicion that everybody else is getting a better deal. Now we are going to wonder if we are being nicked at the checkout counter on the price of a can of soup.

        Kroger announced last week that Cincinnati shoppers soon will have a chance to name our own price for some of its products. Of course, if we could really put our own price on groceries, it would be zero. Or the price our mothers claim they paid in the good old days when a noodle was a noodle and hamburger helper was bread crumbs.

        So you can take that claim with a grain of non-negotiable salt. What we really can do is join a club and hustle around virtual aisles looking for bargains, which we can pick up at Kroger's.

Unnecessary bargains
        The old-fashioned version of this is Sam's Club, which is an opportunity to go into a store for a loaf of bread and come out $400 later with a lifetime supply of mustard and a jar of pickles the size of Montana. Sam's Club has worked about as well for me as a book club or a record club. Lots of stuff I don't need at bargain prices.

        This is a new kind of club, online shopping. So, we will be able to buy things we do not need at record speed. The average consumer can become a commodities day trader.“Honey, I feel awful. I lost my shirt on celery futures. But I feel very confident about my position in toilet paper.”

        It's also another opportunity to send your credit card number into cyberspace.

        Here's how it works:

        You enter the Priceline WebHouse Club from your home or office computer, where you select from an array of grocery items. Last month, the club was hyping its “family vacation and picnic” products — film, sunscreens, barbecue sauces, pickles, powdered iced tea, insect repellent and flea and tick collars.

        After choosing two or more national brands from each category, shoppers can name their own prices and find out within 60 seconds whether their prices have been accepted. It seems to me it would be quicker if the two name brands simply had price tags attached.

        I am stressed out enough already, trying to figure out which downtown street is going to be closed in the morning. I don't want to play the Price is Right when I'm hungry.

        And I just don't like the way this is headed.

Cut-rate cheese
        Can we eventually expect a cyber produce manager who will listen to our bid, then “take it to the boss to see if he'll sharpen his pencil.” Or maybe I'll be ready to click my mouse onto the latest cut-rate deal for cheese, only to hear Regis asking if I want to phone a friend.

        WebHouse Club members “lock-in” their prices by prepaying with a credit card while they're still online. Once this happens, I think you have a better chance of winning the lottery than you do of changing your mind. Meanwhile, you still have not finished your shopping. You have to go to the store to find the exact item you have “negotiated.”

        “You will take your prepaid grocery list, along with your activated valid WebHouse Club Card, to any participating store. Not all stores carry all products, brands and sizes all the time,” WebHouse Club rules warn.

        If my ketchup isn't there, I can visit another store. Or come back another time. I have 90 days to find it.

        Wonderfully thrifty.

        Unless you put a price on your time.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

       



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