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Dan LaPlante, a driver with SPUD, delivers produce to businesses and homes.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Amazon, Alibaba and the explosion of online shopping have shown that consumers are well-versed in how to buy everything from books to bikes online, but shoppers haven't been as quick to use the Internet for some of life's most basic purchases.

Dan LaPlante is one of 25 drivers who delivers groceries for SPUD to Vancouver residents who have caught on. He says people are curious when they see him delivering a box of vegetables to an office.

"They're inquisitive about what we're doing and they always ask lots of questions," he said.

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SPUD allows consumers to pick their produce online and have it delivered to their home or office. It started in 1997 as Small Potatoes Urban Delivery, but it is not a small potato any more.

Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery – SPUD – now operates in six areas in B.C., Alberta and California. The Vancouver-based company delivers organic and local produce to 10,000 customers in the Lower Mainland alone. CEO Peter Van Stolk plans to expand to Toronto and other Canadian cities in the next couple of years.

Food is the biggest retail sector in the country. Canadians spent $84-billion on retail food in 2013, according to Statistics Canada.

But delivering groceries has its challenges. Customers can be put off by delivery costs. Also, the logistics of delivering perishable items ranging from frozen meat to bananas to milk to 65 homes in one trip are daunting. Lastly, people generally don't trust others to pick their apples and oranges for them, said Mr. Van Stolk.

"Whoever figures this out is going to crack the code," he said.

SPUD seems to have figured it out for many: The company makes 4,000 deliveries per day and offers 4,000 different products in its online store. Delivery is free for orders over $35 and customers can ask for a full refund on any item they think is not up to par, no questions asked.

"I have seven IT people who know 400 varieties of apples," said Mr. Van Stolk.

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Grocery giants such as Loblaws and Sobeys have yet to profit from online grocery shopping in Canada, although Amazon and Walmart started offering grocery delivery last year.

Three UBC students are also hoping to capitalize on the fledgling trend, launching a grocery delivery service to three campus residences last month. They already have more than 550 customers and receive anywhere from 10 to 40 orders every day.

Irene Chen started the company, Birtto, because she knew firsthand how inconvenient it was for students to trudge out in the rain to buy groceries when they had exams to study for.

Ms. Chen and co-founders Bo Sun and Bowen Li leased a van, installed fridges in the back and hired two drivers, also students, to make the deliveries.

They source most of their product from a supermarket in Richmond.

"We offer a lot of products that you can't get on campus," said Ms. Chen.

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They plan to start delivery to Vancouver homes next summer.

This series takes a look at businesses, services and infrastructure that aren't often heralded because they actually work well.

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