Tapping societal woes about expanding waistlines, respected U.S. health official Ellen Haas will launch FoodFit.com in January to let users plan and track their meals, get nutritional advice from experts and recipes from famous chefs, and then shop for ingredients and cooking accessories at its online marketplace or with its brick-and-mortar partners.
"There isn't a health leader in this country that doesn't recognize an obesity problem; everybody wants to do better, but they don't have an easy means of leading a healthier life. We give a shortcut," said Haas, who headed the Consumer Federation of America for five terms and later served as the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for four years until 1997.
"What people need is advice, guidance, good products, and opportunity to buy," she added.
Keeping in mind the initial public offering successes of Net-based grocer Webvan and of her former colleague Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's health information site, Drkoop.com, Haas said FoodFit's business model signals the growing convergence between content and e-commerce on the Web, as companies struggle to distinguish their services in a forest of competitors.
According to Sean Kaldor, e-commerce analyst with International Data Corporation, Web sites are expected to capture only 2 percent of the $450 billion grocery market over the next five years. As a result, he said, sites are racing to offer more services.
"The more successful sites do content, commerce, and community," he said.
In fact, several of FoodFit's competitors have already tied health content with online grocery shopping. Webvan, for example, offers weekly menus of nutritious meals and recipes. Whole Foods couples its online store with a magazine.
"If FoodFit is something that helps me with meal planning, managing my sugar intake, looking for low-fat foods, and steering me toward farmers markets--that is great," Kaldor said. "They sound more content focused than the other online grocers, but content tends to be an area you can move into quickly."
FoodFit will feature interactive tools to help people plan daily meals and get feedback about which nutritional elements they're missing or the elements they need to cut. The site's news and information section will debate the latest diet crazes, from Sugar Busters to the Atkins Diet, and will offer tips for how to safely adopt modified eating plans. FoodFit also is talking to partners about creating TV content.
With droves of nutritional sites on the Web already, the part of FoodFit's strategy that strikes analysts is its e-commerce arm.
"It's an intelligent model," said Kevin Murphy, research director for Gartner Group. "They are doing a niche approach by giving nutrition-conscious people information about how to acquire this food instead of tucking it in the back of their head until they maybe see this stuff in the grocery store."
Visitors will get advice from a panel of health experts and well-known chefs, including George Blackburn, associate director of nutrition at Harvard Medical School; Ann Coulston, senior research dietitian at Stanford University Medical Center; Sherry Yard of Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills; and FoodFit executive chef Bonnie Moore, who is an instructor at L'Academie de Cuisine.
Challenging Whole Foods, HomeGrocer, Streamline, and Peapod, the site's farmers market will have sellers that specialize in organic products and deliver groceries, and FoodFit will sell books and kitchen accessories, according to Haas. FoodFit also plans to sell its own branded products--online and offline--and has sponsorships and coupon deals lined up with major supermarkets.
But analysts say that overall, Net grocers face huge obstacles to making money.
"A traditional grocery store is a warehouse, and the customer is responsible for doing the picking, packing, and making sure they get home before the ice cream melts," Murphy said. "When [online grocers] start taking responsibility for that, and [they already] have low profit margins, it's a hard business."