The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Grocery delivery was supposed to be the ultimate pandemic lifeline. But it’s falling short.

Consumers are reporting weeks-long waits on Instacart, Shipt and other leading platforms as demand far outpaces the supply of available workers and groceries.

An Instacart employee delivers groceries to a residence. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)

Most nights, Ruth Papazian stays up until 1 a.m., refreshing her browser in hopes of locking down what has become one of the hottest commodities of the coronavirus recession: a grocery delivery slot.

Four weeks in, she has yet to snag a single window on any of the four delivery platforms that serve her neighborhood in the East Bronx, where she lives with her 85-year-old mother.

“I’ve been refreshing the page like a maniac, like I’m trying to get tickets to a really hot concert — and no matter what, it doesn’t work,” the 62-year-old said. “I don’t know why I bother anymore."

Grocery delivery, with its one-click ordering and “contactless” drop-offs, was supposed to be the ultimate pandemic convenience. It promised to keep people at home and out of crowded stores, facilitating the social distancing needed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Services like Instacart and Shipt were pitched as literal lifelines that could ferry food and other necessities to millions of homebound Americans.

But the system is cracking under the weight of surging demand, and an incommensurate supply of workers and groceries. Shoppers throughout the country are reporting weeks-long waits on platforms like Instacart, Shipt, Peapod and Amazon’s Prime Now, fueling ongoing frustrations and questions about how, or when, the outlook might improve. Delivery workers say they are under growing pressure, too, with many going on strike in recent weeks to protest the lack of protective gear and demand higher pay.

Workers protest at Instacart, Amazon and Whole Foods for health protections and hazard pay

Analysts say the delivery hiccups will likely be long term, even as companies hire and train tens of thousands of new workers. There are some signs, though, that wait times are easing in some parts of the country.

“Everyone is running behind — regional grocers, Amazon, Walmart,” said Bill Bishop, chief executive of retail consulting firm Brick Meets Click. “But the rush is subsiding, and consumers are starting to manage their expectations. They’ve realized they can’t just go online and get their groceries delivered in an hour or two anymore, so they’re starting to plan ahead.”

The coronavirus has brought much of the country to a halt. Millions are sheltering at home at the urging of public officials, limiting their trips outside, including to supermarkets and pharmacies. That has led to skyrocketing demand for home deliveries, which made up just 3 percent of overall grocery sales before the pandemic, according to supermarket consultant Phil Lempert.

Instacart, which hires independent contractors to deliver groceries from such national chains as Safeway, Kroger, Giant and Costco, says orders have quadrupled from a year ago, while Shipt, which is owned by Target, is reporting “record-breaking” demand. Both companies have hired tens of thousands of new shoppers in recent weeks and say they expect those numbers to grow. Amazon, meanwhile, says it is experiencing such “unprecedented” demand that it is wait-listing new customers for its Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market delivery services. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

“The customer demand we expected over the next two to four years has happened on the Instacart platform in the last two to four weeks,” company founder Apoorva Mehta said last week. The service has introduced more flexible delivery options and is allowing customers to place orders two weeks ahead instead of one. It has also nearly doubled its workforce during the last two weeks, from 200,000 to 350,000.

At the same time, delivery workers are dealing with a host of new challenges. Supermarkets are cutting their hours and limiting the number of people who can shop at one time. Stores also are running low on such necessities as toilet paper and eggs, leaving delivery workers scrambling to find suitable replacements, which can involve multiple phone calls and text messages to clients.

At Martha's Table in Washington D.C., demand has increased fivefold since the outbreak of coronavirus and it is increasing every day. (Video: The Washington Post)

Grocery delivery workers say such changes have doubled the time it takes to fulfill each order. Even the shortest shopping lists, they say, can easily take more than an hour to complete after factoring in extra time to wait in line and search for replacements for sold-out items.

The industry says we have enough food. Here’s why some store shelves are empty anyway.

“Business has been blowing up,” said Heidi Carrico, 55, who recently started her own grocery shopping business in Portland, Ore., after three years of delivering for Instacart. “There is so much stress and anxiety, and stores out of everything — we’re constantly having to find replacements, which makes [shopping] take so much longer."

Dumpling, an online platform that helps delivery workers like Carrico operate their own small businesses, has a seen a 15-fold increase in demand from a month ago, according to spokeswoman Olivia O’Donnell. The company plans to double its roster of 1,000 personal shoppers by the end of April.

Carrico is delivering as many as seven orders a day and stopped taking new clients after business surged. She is starting to make other adjustments, too, such as asking customers to tip at least 20 percent and limiting orders to four stores where she feels safe: Fred Meyer, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and a local grocer, New Seasons Market.

‘It feels like a war zone’: As more of them die, grocery workers increasingly fear showing up at work

Back in the Bronx, Papazian said she had formed a plan when President Trump declared a national emergency in mid-March: She would keep ordering groceries the way she always had, relying on a rotation of Instacart, Shipt, Peapod and Fresh Direct to keep her fridge and pantry stocked with cheese danishes from Costco, cleaning supplies from Target, and rice and V8 from Stop & Shop. She booked two deliveries right away, for March 13 and March 15, but hasn’t had any luck since.

Instead, she ventures out every 10 days to pick up her mother’s medications and buy food. Many supermarkets, she says, are running low on staples, so she hits four or five neighborhood shops to patch together basics like milk, bread and eggs.

“I feel like I’m in some post-apocalyptic dystopia where I’m constantly foraging for food,” said Papazian, a health writer who recently ended a bid for Congress.

When she gets home, she refreshes her browser again, hoping maybe this time, she’ll get lucky.

How to buy groceries and food safely during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

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