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Coming Soon: Ordering Groceries by Computer

AT last, help is on the way for grocery shoppers who feel they have run the gantlet of inane tabloids at supermarket checkout lines one too many times.

Ameritech Corporation, a regional Bell phone company, announced Sept. 15 that it bought a minority share in Peapod Ltd., based in Evanston, Ill. This venture will enable shoppers to order groceries via computer modem. Peapod, which also accepts orders by phone and fax, has 7,000 customers in this area and Silicon Valley, Calif.

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Ameritech and Peapod will launch services in Boston by 1995 and move into other regions with a large number of computer users. The companies plan eventually to expand nationwide and offer home grocery shopping through interactive TV, company executives say.

The prospects for cyberspace supermarkets seem good, based on Peapod's account. Last year, the firm more than doubled its customer base and tripled revenues. ``Peapod brings the benefits of the information highway to the everyday chore of shopping for groceries,'' says George Stenitzer, an Ameritech spokesman.

Peapod, also owned in part by the Chicago Tribune Company, aims to tap potential TV viewers for its shopping service from Ameritech's 13 million customers, says Andy Cohen, Peapod's marketing director.

Peapod customers use special software and a modem to link up with the company computer and select from about 18,000 products and prices. Shoppers can also redeem coupons, look for sale items, and compare product costs. Peapod transmits orders to the computers of affiliated grocery stores and delivers the orders to people within a 90-minute period. ``You can do a week's worth of grocery shopping in 10 minutes,'' Mr. Cohen says, ``which means each year you avoid spending the equivalent of several days in a supermarket.''

Peapod customers pay $69.95 for a three-month trial membership and $4.95 per month thereafter. The company charges a flat fee of $4.95 for each delivery plus an added charge based on 5 percent of the grocery order's cost. ``Whatever I ask for, Peapod brings,'' says Sharon Hughes, an Evanston resident. ``When I want green bananas, they bring them green; the milk comes cold, and the ice cream is frozen.''

Still, even cyberspace shoppers will not be insulated indefinitely from the hawking of supermarket tabloids. Peapod plans to upgrade its software and offer customers exposure to tabloids and other enticements for ``impulse purchases,'' Cohen says. ``The question is how to do it without turning off our customer base.''

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