On the banks of the Mississippi, Schnucks Markets is showing how to mix homeliness with hi-tech convenience. Clive Beddall dropped by Mom's filling her trolley with bagels at the bakery counter, while pop and the three kids ­ popcorn bags overflowing ­ are sitting just 10 feet away enjoying a free excursion on the net at the instore Dotcom Café. This is big store convenience retailing, midwestern US style, at the 70,000 sq ft Schnucks supermarket at Creve Coeur on the banks of the Mississippi at St Louis, Missouri. Proclaimed through the Missouri, Illinois and Indiana corn belts as "the friendliest store in town", the 93 branch Schnucks Markets chain is adding colourful dimensions more reminiscent of smaller, downtown delis and c-stores than supermarkets in excess of 50,000 sq ft. The family has been in the food and drink business for 60 years. But, appropriately for a retailer from the region which bred such legendary pioneers as frontiersman Daniel Boone, aviator Charles Lindbergh and composer Scott Joplin, they're building a reputation as America's most serious retailing innovator. President and COO Scott C Schnucks pulls no punches on the group's web site: "We understand today, just as we did in 1939, that our customers deserve nothing less than the very best in service, selection, convenience and value." And that explains why the chain has added an experimental Dotcom Café to its Creve Coeur store. Its unusual offer of 30 minutes' free, high speed internet access on a battery of screens in a 24 hour business centre right in the heart of the sales area is proving a powerful magnet for the hi-tech minded consumers in that corner of the US. Extensive local publicity offers the chance to "stop by for breakfast, lunch or dinner" in the store's extensive home meal replacement department, with the complimentary side dish' being a half hour spin on the web. As one Friday evening shopper put it to us last weekend: "Hey, why shouldn't I surf the net when I go to buy my groceries? It's a great facility and gives Schnucks a fine advantage over the opposition." Gleaming station wagons and sedans populate the parking lot as 13,000 customers per week from the neat suburbs west of St Louis sample the experience. And while the cyberspace facility is, insists the company, still an experiment, it's one going well so far. Meanwhile, shoppers can also click on to Express Connection, the multiple's online grocery store which, unlike many similar systems in the US, does not require a monthly membership fee. Orders for same day delivery must be placed by 11am, although there is a delivery window available after 2pm. Given there are six competing large store retailers within a five mile radius of the Creve Coeur store ­ plus a Wal-Mart not too far away ­ Joanie Taylor, Schnucks' director of consumer affairs, says competing effectively is all about bolting services on to the traditional grocery offer. Twenty four hour trading has also become a strong feature for Schnucks although the unit's customer profile shows that most purchases are made between 5pm on Friday and 8pm on Sunday. Most Schnucks locations are what the locals call "combination food and drug stores," offering dry groceries and packaged foods, over the counter drugs, personal care items, seasonal merchandise, fresh baked goods, meats, seafood, fresh produce and dairy items. Many of the stores also include an instore florist, bulk food section, video rental service and film developing. A massive wholefood centre and a 24 hour pharmacy are prominent parts of the "family store" image at Creve Coeur, and even a humidor, a climate controlled cigar department, is on offer for the better heeled citizens of St Louis. Add a recently expanded deli section featuring a strong try before you buy' facility and you have the Schnucks Markets mix. {{SPOTLIGHT }}