Six weeks ago, grocery shopping from home was efficient for Elliot and Morgan Landes and their two daughters.
The Pennsport family would wait just three hours after placing their order to receive their food at their door.
Louise Pugliese in Hatfield found the process just as simple. Upon delivery, she recalls, “I signed a piece of paper and that was it.”
Now, as home food delivery has gone from a convenience used by a relative few to a boom industry, buying food online has often became a big headache. Demand is so high that some services and markets have fallen more than a week behind. Others, such as Whole Foods, have stopped taking on new customers altogether.
While many see buying food online as a way to avoid contracting the coronavirus, it has become another of the unintended frustrations of the lengthy COVID-19 isolation.
“We’ve been trying to get a delivery window for a couple of days now and we can’t,” said Elliot Landes. “I’ll probably just make a trip to the grocery store.”
Pugliese said something similar.
“I haven’t used [the pickup service] lately because of the coronavirus situation,” she said. "I’m concerned because the shoppers who shop for you come into contact with so many people that I thought ‘I’m just going to do it myself.’ ”
At least they have options.
Jennie Spotila and her husband are largely confined to their King of Prussia home because of pre-pandemic medical conditions. Grocery delivery has quickly gone from a crucial lifeline to a serious game of roulette.
“I completely understand why everyone now wants to take advantage of grocery delivery,” Spotila said. “I would, if I were a healthy person. However, people who are able to go to a store are clogging the delivery services. People like me, who are unable to go to the store, can only cross their fingers and hope to land a slot.”
The Reading Terminal Market jumped headlong into the delivery game with third-party company Mercato, but had to jump right out again when the systems became overwhelmed. A service that averaged 50 deliveries a day in early March swelled to more than 8,000 before the plug was pulled April 14. Curbside pickups continued, however.
Delivery resumed Monday, with limits on the number of customers.
While Mercato continued working with other partners to make deliveries, including many renowned merchants in the Italian Market, the surge has left even the most stable operators scrambling to fill orders.
“Prior to the pandemic, we had been using Walmart online to shop and pick up, and we loved it,” said Paul Harris, who lives in the Northeast Philadelphia. “Unfortunately, we stopped using it the last couple of weeks because we were missing half our [stuff] and waiting in the car for over an hour.”
Instacart, one of the leading delivery services, has been at the forefront of the explosion. Earlier this month, chief executive Apoorva Mehta said his company was increasing its number of shoppers from 200,000 to 350,000.
“The customer demand we expected over the next two to four years," he said, “has happened on the Instacart platform in the last two to four weeks.”
Instacart sales almost doubled in a single month between February and March, and grew by 167% since March 2019, according to data provided by Second Measure, a firm that analyzes credit card data.
Amazon Fresh, which includes pick up and delivery options from Whole Foods, has seen sales grow by over two-thirds month over month, a growth trend underway since delivery became a Prime membership benefit in October 2019. Peapod, which runs Giant Direct, grew by 45% from February to March.
“The demand for Giant Direct continues to be strong — unprecedented — and order sizes grow each week,” said Giant spokesperson Ashley Flower, referring to the grocer’s online marketplace. “We expect this trend to continue and are working to expand capacity each day.”
Wegmans spokesperson Katie Roche said the company was on track to double its e-commerce business by July. Like others on the other side of the virtual register, she suggested that customers be persistent in checking the website for available times.
Exploring other options
The trend lines are clear. As the virus has spread and people have stayed inside, retail sales everywhere have plummeted. After climbing nationwide earlier in 2020, purchases fell 7% the last week of March across the country compared with the same week a year ago, according to figures from Second Measure, a company that analyzes credit card data.
But that decline has been a boon for delivery firms. In a recent analysis, the business analytics firm Second Measure found that Instacart has been enjoying record sales. In March, its average weekly sales almost doubled compared with the figure for the first two months of the year.
In Philadelphia, the convenience-food delivery company GoPuff had been doing well even before the pandemic. The firm, founded in 2013, has been known as a rare Philadelphia “unicorn,” a start-up valued at more than $1 billion. But Second Measure found that, since the virus gripped the nation, GoPuff’s business really took off — even though it has stopped taking cash to minimize human contact.
In March, according to data that Second Measure shared with The Inquirer, GoPuff sales in Philadelphia jumped 88% over the previous month, and were 142% higher than the previous year.
The same trend held for the firm nationwide.
» READ MORE: GoPuff consumer trends during the pandemic
In filling orders, GoPuff.com is more corner store than supermarket. Its eclectic menu ranges from snacks and soda to beer and even adult toys. A $14 order, which included potato chips, Bloody Mary mix, and tissues, took about an hour to arrive to a home in South Philadelphia on a recent Friday.
Although firms have changed procedures to minimize or eliminate direct contact with customers, their staffs are still in the stores and on the roads. That danger led to a brief strike from workers who continue to demand hazard pay and personal protection equipment from Instacart.
“Aside from not wanting to get sick while shopping, we are petrified of getting our customers sick,” said a member of the labor group Gig Workers Collective, who asked not to be identified.
In stores and on the web, tempers are shorter, items more elusive, markets more restrictive. There is a cacophony of posts on social media blaming one side or the other for problems.
A practice known as tip-baiting has even surfaced. That’s when a customer promises a sizable gratuity when placing an order, only to modify it when the goods are received. Sometimes no tip is paid.
But there is also some gratitude amid the ugliness.
“The Instacart driver didn’t have a car that could make it up the mountain, so I drove down to meet her,” customer Chris Barron tweeted. “Still gave her a 25% tip. These folks are the real heroes. They didn’t sign up for this. Be generous if you can.”
The sweet spot
In the fight for food, many customers are trying to find the sweet spot when they can go online and get a relatively quick delivery time — or even a firm date for a delivery at all, albeit days away.
Logging on to place orders seems to work best late at night or early in the morning. In one recent attempt, The Inquirer went online at 11:59 p.m. for a South Philadelphia ShopRite and was able to secure a promise of a delivery — eight days later.
Another vexing issue: the unavailability of some items and the substitutions that the shopper might make.
Giving a customer Folger’s coffee instead of Maxwell House is one thing. But an exchange of dairy yogurt for nondairy, or the random choice of peanut-laden granola bars might pose a more serious threat for those with allergies.
Joe Corcoran, of Medford, said he waited days for his order to arrive — and then found that it had too many wrong items.
“They’re trying,” Corcoran said. “I’m sure they’re doing the best they can. But it’s just my luck that we encounter this crap on our first try at online groceries.”
Inquirer staff writer Chris A. Williams contributed to this article.