Jul 4, 2008

Business - New Webtool to bring wisdom to grocery shoppers

New web tool brings wisdom of shoppers to the grocery store
Shoppers who dread selecting a salad dressing or anguish over buying the wrong jar of pickles can finally stop tormenting themselves.Zeer.com, a new Cambridge, Massachusetts website, brings the wisdom of the crowd to the grocery store— providing user-generated reviews to spare people the agony of uncertainty in the aisle. The website is part food search engine, part community website. Users can look up food by name or by specifying criteria such as gluten-free or calorie count. They can also read about and review products, create shopping lists, make profiles, and join communities of like-minded eaters. “If you could ask a product a question, what would it be?” said Michael Putnam, president and founder of Zeer. “What do my friends think of you? Are you healthy?” But will it work? Zeer demystifies an arena of life that hardly seems to need such help. It brings social web tools to the kind of store people visit weekly or more frequently, where products have a fairly straightforward function - to be eaten. “Milk is a baseline commodity. People are so familiar with the product and how they use it that unless there’s something dramatically new about it, they don’t need extra help,” said Patti Freeman Evans, a research director at JupiterResearch, who did say the website could be useful to people with special dietary interests. The mobile version of the service allows people to use a cellphone’s browser to access information at m.zeer.com. Shoppers can read reviews by typing in a product’s name or product code into a search field. A user who created a shopping list online can leave the paper list at home and pull up the electronic version. One challenge will be attracting traffic to the website, which plans to make money through advertising. That could be tough for the small start-up, since people seeking product information overwhelmingly use Google or go directly to a retailer’s website, according to Freeman Evans. If Zeer does attract a critical mass of users, the site’s strongest feature could be its social features, which allow users to not only browse and rate products, but connect with others with the same food allergy or low-cholesterol dietary needs. “If it’s a new mother who is trying to figure out what are the best sort of paediatric nutrition supplements, what products work best for colicky babies —that could really help,” Freeman Evans said. Zeer’s social aspect, including recommendations and discussion boards, is what April Lawson of Brookline finds useful. By joining Zeer communities such as Weight Watchers and Snackfood Lovers, she can get recommendations for products she has never heard of and shake up her routine. “It’s an automatic filter and community of people who have the same needs as you - for me, that’s hugely valuable,” Lawson said. “I’m always looking for stuff that fits with my lifestyle, and my healthy eating habits, but that’s new and not boring and I haven’t tried it hundreds of times.” Still, people have long managed to shop for groceries without specialised insight, and are used to looking at shelves instead of a cellphone screen when they choose food. Last week, Putnam demonstrated the mobile version of Zeer while wandering the aisles of the Charles River Plaza Whole Foods Market. He used his phone to pull up a list of kosher, gluten-free foods he created at home using Zeer’s search tool. He looked up information and reviews of two kinds of yogurt by punching their product codes into the search engine. Putnam conceded that many people in the United States still do not use cellphone Web browsers and might be too busy to do extensive in-store research. But that is expected to change, he said. “If I see something in the grocery store that I don’t know anything about, but might be on the more expensive side, I’d rather flip open my mobile phone and take two seconds to type it in than spend the money,” Lawson said.

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