PRODUCT FINDER SERVICES GAIN INTEREST

NEW YORK -- When the Endless Aisle service changed hands almost a year ago, the online rare-product locator concept could have burned out in its infancy like so many Internet grocers.Although Endless Aisle's former retailer clients are slow to re-adopt the service as a complement to their online shopping sites, the idea hasn't been abandoned.MyWebGrocer.com here resurrected Endless Aisle early this

NEW YORK -- When the Endless Aisle service changed hands almost a year ago, the online rare-product locator concept could have burned out in its infancy like so many Internet grocers.

Although Endless Aisle's former retailer clients are slow to re-adopt the service as a complement to their online shopping sites, the idea hasn't been abandoned.

MyWebGrocer.com here resurrected Endless Aisle early this year after financially strapped NeXpansion, North Brunswick, N.J., ceased the program a little more than a year after launching it.

Endless Aisle, once used by 20 or so retailers to find uncommon shelf-stable grocery items, is down to two clients: Harris Teeter and Winn-Dixie, which call the service Special Item Request and E.S.P. (Express Special Purchase), respectively. MyWebGrocer President Michael Spindler said four more retailers are set to launch the service by year's end.

Spindler revealed that Endless Aisle has access to 145,000 items, about a third of which are available for immediate shipment from GA Foods, Lowell, Ind., vs. the 30,000-plus items Endless Aisle had access to under its previous ownership.

Meanwhile, specialty food provider Kehe Food Distributors, Romeoville, Ill., began this year to source hard-to-find Center Store products for Marsh Supermarkets and Kroger, which call their service Specialty Foods Online and Special Order, respectively. "There was a need out there," said Tim Probasco, vice president of business development for Eye Level Solutions, Wood Dale, Ill., which powers the online service for the retailers.

Services such as these are an important way to meet shoppers' demand for convenience, explained technology consultant Ken Fobes, chairman of Business Strategies Group Inc., Ponte Vedra, Fla.

These services are a niche business, and won't relieve supermarkets of the squeeze from mass merchandisers and specialty retailers, noted Don Stuart, partner, Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. "They're hard to find for a reason. There's not demand to support permanent supply in a warehouse or permanent space on a shelf," he said. "I think a lot more can be done at the core to differentiate."