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Online grocery orders have delivery, pickup services on overload during coronavirus crisis

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Local Wal-Mart is latest to join retail online, curbside shopping trend (copy)

Walmart employees in Goose Creek help load groceries into a customer's vehicle. Grocery stores offering curbside pickup have seen a surge of business as customers buy their groceries online due to the coronavirus pandemic. File

Charleston-area grocery stores that once offered pickup and delivery services within hours are seeing backlogs stretch into days, if the options are available at all, and experts warn that the coronavirus could be the trigger that forever changes how many consumers get their food and household goods.

"A hurricane lasts a few days — people run to store and hoard their food and then it's over," said Phil Lempert, editor of SuperMarketGuru.com. "We're talking about months here. I'm not sure that our infrastructure, both in the food world and psychologically, is ready for that."

Grocery delivery services like those offered by Instacart and Shipt have been overloaded in recent days with orders.

"This past weekend, we saw the highest customer demand in Instacart’s history in terms of groceries sold on our platform," the San Francisco-based company said in an email.

The typical order size was up 20 percent and, not surprisingly, the most-searched-for items were hand sanitizer, vitamins, powdered milk, diapers, face masks and canned goods.

Instacart bag (copy)

Grocery delivery services like Instacart have been overwhelmed with orders as consumers decide to shop for groceries online due to coronavirus fears. Provided

Instacart also had a record number of shoppers — the independent contractors it terms "household heroes" — gathering goods for customers in the company's network of 5,500 cities, including the Charleston area. But it will need a lot more shoppers to keep up with the demand from folks who don't want to leave their homes because of the virus, called COVID-19.

"As this situation evolves ... it's important that we continue to have a growing community of shoppers," Instacart said.

Shipt is offering its shoppers up to $22 an hour and two weeks of financial assistance if they have to put their work on hold because of a caronavirus diagnosis.

Amazon, the nation's largest online retailer, said it will hire 100,000 workers for its delivery network and pay them $17 an hour or more, depending on where they work. In a statement, the Seattle-based company said it hopes to hire displaced retail and hospitality workers, like the hundreds of workers laid off this week by Charleston restaurants that have temporarily shut down after a newly enacted coronavirus crackdown.

But Lempert said there ultimately "aren't enough gig employees for the demand."

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Online shopping has accounted for roughly 3 percent to 4 percent of total grocery store purchases nationwide before the coronavirus. Doubling or even tripling that number "shows us this is a very fragile system that we haven't figured out yet," said Lempert.

"It's going to get worse," he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that grocery stores nationwide are having trouble keeping items in stock and meeting the intense demand for delivery services. Consumers are enduring cancellations and long waits on orders, and missing items are common, the newspaper reported, adding grocery delivery websites are crashing from high traffic. 

Amazon said it is now prioritizing the delivery and restocking of household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand products because of the large number of orders it's receiving. It added in a blog post that many items are out of stock and deliveries might take longer than normal.

A spot check Friday of Charleston area grocery stores that offer delivery and curbside pickup shows pickup times aren't available until several days and some delivery services weren't available.

No one knows how long the current situation will last, but Lempert said it will spur fundamental changes in the food-delivery business. Investments in autonomous vehicles and drones for delivery options will soar. Consumers will be willing to pay a higher price for home delivery. And there could be rolling shortages of overseas goods — like Italian wine and cheeses — as foreign factories work to regain capacity.

At home, food supply chains could be tested by a growing shortage of truck drivers, as existing ones age and retire. 

There will also be opportunities. 

"If the percentage of food on the shelves is locally produced, that will be an exception" to the supply chain issues, Lempert said. "This is a great chance for retailers to really promote the local foods and put them out front."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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