Coronavirus Has Shoppers Flocking To Online Grocers. Getting The Food May Not Be So Easy.

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Amazon, Walmart and other retailers are struggling to meet a spike in demand for online grocery … [+]

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Having a well-stocked refrigerator is essential to surviving any quarantine, self-imposed or not. As fears of coronavirus spread and communities across the globe are forced to shut down, shoppers are turning to delivery services to load up without risking contamination. It looks like they may have to leave the house anyway.

Online grocery shopping has been slow to catch on in the U.S., with just 3% of groceries purchased on the internet, according to a report from Bain & Company. The services have never been tested at scale and in the early days of widespread U.S. closures, they are not putting up a good showing.

Allison Burnett, a 61-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles, tried placing an online grocery order from Amazon on Thursday night, pleased to see an advertisement for two-hour delivery. He piled tons of frozen food into his cart, as well as eggs, which he had forgotten on an earlier store run. When he tried to check out, it turns out there were actually zero delivery times available and he couldn’t submit the order.

“It didn’t even let me book a week in advance,” says Burnett, who has two boys, ages 11 and 13, who will be staying home from school starting next week. He checked again on Friday. Nothing.

Amazon and Walmart – two of the leading delivery services in the U.S. – did not respond to a request for comment on how they are responding to the increase in 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 – also alerted customers that due to high demand, some items may be out of stock and delivery windows may be impacted. Its busiest day on record was on Thursday, yet it said it had been able to do same-day delivery on the majority of its orders in the past week.

Bethany Morrison, 24, a child behavior specialist in Long Island, began to fill her online cart at Whole Foods with the vegan staples she relies on, like oat milk and spinach, but noticed many things were out of stock. Every time she refreshed the page, another item would disappear. When she was ready to check out, she found there were no delivery times available. A customer service representative 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, however it won’t be delivered until next Wednesday.

In many cities, customers are finding that delivery is simply going to take longer than normal, not exactly what anyone wants to experience during a national emergency. Matt Witmer, a 29-year-old IT engineer in Pennsylvania, has been ordering his groceries online for the last several weeks. On Friday morning, he found the soonest delivery time was three days later.

He placed the order, but is expecting that many of the items in his order will be cancelled because they’re out of stock or substituted with another item.

Most retailers will aim to select the exact item that a customer has requested. If it is unavailable, they will look for a substitute and text the customer to ask their preference. Increasingly, it may be slim pickings. Tom Catteneo, a startup employee in Boston, ended up receiving just five of the 28 items he requested this week.

Other orders have been outright cancelled. In one email from Walmart to a customer, it explained that the “local store is temporarily unable to fulfill online grocery orders, so we had to cancel.” It said the customer wouldn’t be charged and would receive $5 off a future online grocery order.

For a number of retailers who have been aggressively pushing grocery delivery and curbside pick-up, the coronavirus is shaping up to be a true test. Amazon has made free two-hour grocery delivery available to Prime members in many parts of the country. Walmart has been aggressively rolling out free same-day pickup on orders placed before 1 pm and same-day delivery across the country.

“I was banking on the fact that this is still a relatively little known service and hoping to skip the madness that grocery shopping seems to be right now,” Witmer says. “It ended up being the first time I wasn’t able to have it delivered in the two hour window immediately after my order time. Today and tomorrow were both booked solid.”