Dinner or diapers delivered in a flash


Need a gallon of low-fat milk and some laundry detergent with that take-out order of meatball subs?

California-based PDQuick, which is bringing a blend of online grocery and take-out service to the Baltimore-Washington region, promises both meals and groceries, delivered in about 30 minutes.

The company has opened its first East Coast "fulfillment" center - where groceries are stocked and meals prepared - in Towson. As part of an expansion outside its Southern California base, PDQuick plans another center in Baltimore's Charles Village neighborhood and five more in the region by the end of the year.

The company, which started 13 years ago in West Hollywood as Pink Dot, bills itself as catering to time-starved consumers in need of "lifestyle convenience" products: sandwiches, salads, pasta and fried chicken and major brands of most products found on supermarket shelves.

"We deliver those items you need now, or in minutes," said Maxine Pollack, chief financial officer of the Camarillo, Calif., company. "Anywhere you go, people are time-pressed these days. Whether you're hungry, or sick or the baby's out of diapers. There are many reasons you need something now, and it's difficult to go out."

PDQuick is the latest to announce plans to get into the burgeoning, yet unproven, online grocery market in the Greater Baltimore area. But unlike others, PDQuick views itself as a supplement to the grocery store, not a replacement.

Industry leader Webvan Group Inc. - which is buying HomeGrocer.com Inc. - hopes to bring online grocery deliveries to the Baltimore area by early next year, basing its operation at a distribution center in Pasadena.

And since early this year, consumers have been able to name their own price on groceries on Priceline.com's Web site, though they must pick up the items themselves at stores such as Metro, Giant, Super Fresh and Safeway. Other competitors include Peapod and Streamline.com.

"It's becoming increasingly crowded," said Shawn Milne, a vice president and senior e-commerce research analyst with E-Offering Corp. in San Francisco. "It's going to be a difficult road. Many companies out there are determined to move into this business, and ... a few online grocery companies look like they will struggle because the bar has been raised with the Webvan-Homegrocer merger."

Last year, online grocery sales totaled $200 million - less than 1 percent of total supermarket sales, according to Internet research firm Jupiter Communications. PDQuick falls into a separate category from pure online grocers, or even Internet companies that distribute a broad array of products, including food, said Jack Staff, a senior economist for Zona Research. This emerging category caters more to the gourmet and convenience end of the market and to busy consumers who will pay extra.

"What all of these segments are about are service and time," Staff said. "It turns out that time has become the real commodity. Nobody really knows what the size of that market is. It's definitely out there."

It will be challenging, especially for smaller companies, to keep their delivery systems efficient, Staff said.

PDQuick, which makes more than 100,000 deliveries a month, has found a proven system over the past 13 years in California, Pollack said. "We're really taking a proven concept and expanding it," she said.

The company hopes to augment the weekly supermarket trip in the way convenience stores do, besides offering prepared meals, said Patrick McGlynn, regional manager. Prices are generally competitive with convenience stores.

At its Towson location, which opened in mid-July, PDQuick has been sending its fleet of Volkswagen Beetles on about 50 deliveries a day, a number expected to grow to an average 125 to 200, McGlynn said. The center serves the area bounded by Northern Parkway, Seminary Avenue, Charles Street and Harford Road.

Customers can order over the Internet, by viewing and clicking on a full menu of items, or by phone. The calls are routed through a call center to the fulfillment centers, where employees fill shopping baskets or prepare meals.

The company now has 17 distribution centers in California, plus Towson.

Another center will open on Wyman Park Drive by the end of September, serving an area within a 10-minute drive.

Centers will open and deliveries will start in Arlington, Va., in late September, followed by Washington, Alexandria, College Park and either Rockville or Bethesda by December.

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