The coronavirus has flocked shoppers to online grocers. Obtaining the food may not be that easy.
Having a well-stocked refrigerator is essential for surviving any quarantine, self-imposed or not. As coronavirus fears spread and communities around the world are forced to shut down, buyers are turning to delivery services to refuel without risking contamination. Looks like they might have to leave the house anyway.
Online grocery shopping has been slow to spread in the United States, with just 3% of groceries purchased on the Internet, according to a report from Bain & Company. The services have never been tested on a large scale and at the start of the widespread shutdowns in the United States, they don’t look good.
Allison Burnett, a 61-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles, tried to place an online grocery order on Amazon Thursday night, delighted to see an ad for a two-hour delivery. He stacked tons of frozen food in his cart, as well as eggs, which he had left behind on a previous shopping trip. When he tried to verify, it turned out that there was actually no delivery time available and he was unable to submit the order.
“It didn’t even allow me to book a week in advance,” says Burnett, who has two boys, ages 11 and 13, who won’t be home from school starting next week. He rechecked on Friday. Nothing.
Amazon and Walmart – two of the major delivery services in the United States – did not respond to a request for comment on how they are responding to increased demand. However, Amazon said on its website that inventory and delivery may be temporarily unavailable due to increased demand. Instacart – which handles delivery for Costco, Aldi and other grocery stores – has also alerted customers that due to high demand, some items may be out of stock and delivery windows may be affected. Her busiest day on record was Thursday, but she said she was able to deliver the majority of her orders on the same day over the past week.
Bethany Morrison, 24, a child behavior specialist from Long Island, started filling her online cart at Whole Foods with the vegan staples she relies on, like oat milk and spinach, but noticed that a lot of things were out of stock. Each time she refreshed the page, another item disappeared. When she was ready to check out, she found that there were no delivery times available. A customer service rep encouraged her to try again in the morning, but to no avail. She ended up placing an order through Peapod, an online delivery service owned by Stop & Shop, but it won’t be delivered until next Wednesday.
In many cities, customers find that delivery is simply going to take longer than normal, which isn’t exactly what everyone wants to experience in a national emergency. Matt Witmer, a 29-year-old computer engineer in Pennsylvania, has been ordering his groceries online for several weeks. On Friday morning, he found out that the shortest delivery time was three days later.
He has placed the order, but expects many items in his order to be canceled because they are out of stock or replaced with another item.
Most retailers will seek to select the exact item that a customer has requested. If he’s not available, they’ll look for a replacement and text the customer asking for their preference. More and more, it can be thin pickings. Tom Catteneo, a startup employee in Boston, ultimately only received five of the 28 items he requested this week.
Other orders have been canceled altogether. In an email from Walmart to a customer, he explained that “the local store is temporarily unable to process grocery orders online, so we had to cancel.” He said the customer would not be charged and would receive $ 5 off a future grocery order online.
For a number of retailers who have aggressively pushed for grocery delivery and curbside collection, the coronavirus is shaping up to be a real test. Amazon has made free two-hour grocery delivery available to Prime members in many parts of the country. Walmart has aggressively rolled out free same-day pickup for orders placed before 1 p.m. and same-day delivery nationwide.
“I was betting that this is still a relatively little-known service and hoped to avoid the craziness that the grocery store seems to be right now,” says Witmer. “It was finally the first time that I couldn’t get it delivered within the two hour window immediately after the time of my order. Today and tomorrow were both booked solidly.