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Dot-Com Explosion Leaves Noe Merchants Unfazed
By Heidi Anderson
Have you noticed a bunch of strange vans driving around Noe Valley with logos like Webvan.com and Kozmo.com? Do you see the UPS truck on your street an awful lot even though the holidays are over?
These vans are part of a new way of shopping. They're delivering groceries, books, videos, wine, and all manner of consumer goods to Noe Valley residents. Customers use their computers to find a company's site on the World Wide Web, click around on its product images, and order items by typing in their credit card number. Then, in a few hours or days, the doorbell rings and there the stuff is.
Webvan.com is a national online supermarket that sells and delivers produce, dry goods, wine, beer, even aromatherapy oils. Peapod.com, formerly associated with Safeway, provides a similar service. Meanwhile, Wine.com has popped up as a cyber version of Beverages & More, allowing you to buy a fancy cork puller with your Napa Valley sangiovese.
Amazon.com will fall all over itself to sell you books, movies, and CDs -- and ship them by mail within 24 hours. Or if you want to rent a video, Kozmo.com will zip one out to your house an hour after you zap them. Just return the movie in three days to the Kozmo bin sitting in Tom and Dave's Juice It! on 24th Street (or to Real Food's or Java 'n' More).
Well, Tom and Dave are probably not threatened by the dot-com revolution. But how do other Noe Valley businesses--the ones that sell food, books, wine, and videos -- feel about it?
Chicken Soup for the Soul
Tom Maravilla, of MikeyTom Market on Church Street at 29th, doesn't perceive much of a threat from Peapod or Webvan. "You can do all your shopping at the Costcos and Safeways," Maravilla says, "but you'll always need to run out for something you forgot, like salt or something, and there we are."
But he admits frustration when he sees the Webvan truck pull up to a neighbor's house half a block from his store. "I mean, they can just call me and tell me what they need, and I'll bring it right over!" he laughs.
Seriously, though, if customers really can't or don't want to leave the house, MikeyTom will deliver their groceries (within a nine-block radius). The service is free for orders over $25. "We've always delivered," points out Maravilla, who does most of the deliveries himself.
Of course, customers have to trust the staff to choose the produce, and it helps if shoppers are familiar with what MikeyTom keeps in stock. But Maravilla is happy to help. "One woman recently called us from Memphis to order a bunch of cold remedies for her daughter. Her daughter, who lives down the block from here, was cooped up with the flu."
Meanwhile, Real Food Company manager Ashleigh Bruchs says the recent explosion of Internet grocery delivery has not changed the sales volume at her store on 24th Street. She recalls only one dip in business -- last year when Whole Foods opened in San Francisco. "We lost some customers. But now most of them are back, and business has even improved."
Bruchs acknowledges that Real Food can't match the convenience of Webvan's door-to-door delivery service. But if you really need to save time, you can call Real Food and place your order. It'll be ready for you to pick up. The store will also deliver the goods if you live nearby and are too ill to come in.
No Wine Online Before Its Time
Walid Masou, of Urban Cellars on 24th near Church, says, "I have no doubt that they [web sites like wine.com] have begun to affect the wine business."
But he's not worried at the moment. "I just have to keep on giving the best personal service. And I can make deliveries once in a while, after the store is closed," offers Masou.
He also has a web site, urbancellars.com, currently under construction. In the future you may be able to use it to order your merlot in the middle of the night. Masou also plans to expand his delivery options by employing a local service.
Still, knowing the amount of red tape that he's had to go through to sell wine in California, Masou is a bit perplexed at how Wine.com can make money with its (relatively) low prices. "Do they actually have a warehouse in every state?" he asks.
Video Stores Offer Chat Rooms
Brian Dunleavy, who owns 21st Century Video on 24th near Bell Market, has his own potential nemesis: Kozmo.com.
Still, he doesn't see the mobile movie moguls as much of a threat.
"Kozmo might work for people who get home from work at 11:30 p.m. and for some reason need a video right then," says Dunleavy, "and I do get frantic calls from customers in their cars coming home and panicked about when we close."
But for the most part, he says, running a video store is a people business. "It's good if the owner gets to know you, what you like and all. And here in Noe Valley you've got the people, you've got the kids, and they all know each other's families. Sometimes there's a party in the back of the store. You have to remember that a video store is part of the neighborhood experience."
Besides, 21st Century Video does offer a delivery service (at least Dunleavy has been testing one for the past year). If you call before 4 p.m. -- 821-2121 -- you can arrange for delivery of your movie between 6 and 8 p.m. The charge is $3.
Dunleavy adds that he will personally deliver your movie "if you're a regular customer and you're laid up or sick."
A few blocks away on Castro near 25th, Video Wave has held forth for more than a decade, weathering the opening of two Blockbusters and three other neighborhood video stores. Owner Alexander Gardener cheerfully ignores Kozmo.com.
"Kozmo.com isn't anything really new for us to deal with. Our neighbors aren't ready to give up this store.
"For example," Gardener continues, "if a kid comes in here and wants to rent something questionable, we may call the parents. Some parents even keep on file with us the titles they don't want their kids to see." Gardener claims that one time he coaxed a parent out of renting Nightmare on Elm Street for her adolescent son.
Obviously, Gardener places great importance on personal contact. "Sometimes a customer will ask if I have a web site so that they can look over the titles the store has, but I tell them that we can find many more movies just by talking together."
Gardener feels so strongly about his caretaker role in the neighborhood that he occasionally suggests to frustrated shoppers that maybe what they need is to curl up with a good book.
"It sounds silly for me to say that, but it's true!"
Bookstore Helps Patrons Do Laundry
Cover to Cover Booksellers co-owner Tracy Wynne has done the math in comparing her store with online bookseller Amazon.com. "We figured it out a few months ago," she reports, "and they are going to lose more in a year than we will make in the next decade."
Wynne, who bought Cover to Cover (with partners Mark and Janet Ezarik) in December from retiring owner Nicky Salan, says the shop won't bother to compete with Amazon.com in online ordering. Instead, they'll just keep trying to please the customers they've cultivated for more than 17 years.
Wynne laughs, "People in this neighborhood do understand computers and the Internet. Some of them actually find interesting stuff on Amazon.com. But then they print the information out and bring it in here, and buy the book from us!"
And she wonders how Amazon.com can possibly compete with Cover to Cover's new "laundry reading list." Explains Wynne, "We were nervous about moving away from near Bell Market. But we moved in here next to Launderland [24th and Church], and we noticed people coming in with bottles of detergent in their hands, looking for something to read." So, in the store's window you can now peruse suggested titles to read during all those rinse cycles.
Cover to Cover also boasts a healthy mix of readers' groups and a topnotch children's book section. "We have an incredibly loyal group here in Noe Valley. They want us as much as we want them. We're blessed," says Wynne.
It's the People, Silly!
When all is said and done, the merchants know that the secret to any store's success is a "Howdy, neighbor!" attitude.
Maravilla of MikeyTom says the reason his delivery service doesn't get used that much is simple: people need people. "Sometimes our customers not only want to get their groceries, but they want a chance to talk with people and see their friends," he says.
And 21st Century Video owner Dunleavy agrees. "When we opened this store a little over a year ago, we couldn't believe how crowded 24th Street was. It was so vibrant. People with their kids and their dogs, they run to the bank, and then they run to Bell Market. Then they stop by here for a video, then they're off to get some coffee. Delivery? Who needs it?"