Govan won’t starve. He has friends and a son who can help, although he said he doesn't “feel like imposing.” The shopping experience worried him: If grocery stores can’t make timely deliveries, seniors will need to shop in person or rely on a network of friends and family members, which some don’t have.
“I took an hour diddling with this online shopping business — it’s kind of new to me,” Govan said. “I guess they’re just having a stress of staff power.”
Govan stumbled on a hiccup in the food supply chain affecting grocery stores across the nation as the number of coronavirus cases surges and people avoid public places. Stores are struggling to hire more workers to fill and deliver additional online orders.
Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for Albertsons, Safeway’s parent company, said the grocery giant plans to hire 30,000 workers and is partnering with companies in the service industry, such as Hilton and MGM Resorts, that have laid off workers to find them. Whelan said the new hires will boost the timeliness of online deliveries.
“As you can imagine, we are experiencing high demand. We appreciate our customers’ patience on this,” he said. “Certainly, as you know, these are unprecedented times.”
Other companies are making similar moves. Instacart is planning to hire 300,000 personal shoppers. A Giant spokesperson said the company is hiring store clerks, pharmacy technicians, delivery drivers and warehouse workers — and suggested customers use Instacart as well as Giant’s own drivers.
A Whole Foods Market spokesperson said the company is seeing an increase in online orders and is “working around the clock to continue to deliver grocery orders to customers as quickly as possible.” The company declined to release details about grocery delivery demand but referred to Amazon’s companywide announcement of plans to hire 100,000 full- and part-time workers. (Whole Foods is an Amazon subsidiary, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
There seemed to be a bottleneck Friday in the delivery process from grocers in the Washington region. Safeway’s earliest delivery time was noon Tuesday. Peapod, Giant’s delivery service, had no delivery available through April 3. Amazon, which delivers for Whole Foods, had a delivery slot at 9 p.m. Friday but none Saturday, the only other day listed. Toilet paper was unavailable at all three.
Seeking to keep shoppers safe in a period of social distancing, several grocers have introduced special hours reserved for older shoppers and those with compromised immune systems, an effort to reduce their risk of infection. Some shoppers are finding plexiglass shields for cashiers and marked floors so shoppers can stand six feet apart to maintain social distancing.
At least one grocery store in the Washington region is switching to curbside pickup, worried that shopping inside isn’t safe.
The Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op closed this week to transition to an online ordering system. Mike Houston, the store’s general manager, said he hopes to reopen Saturday to complete orders filed with the Web-based system, which was built from scratch.
The co-op has operated “massively beyond capacity” since the coronavirus outbreak hit, Houston said. Worried about risks to shoppers and employees in a 4,200-square-foot store — and skeptical that special hours for older guests will prevent infection — he decided “the only safe way to protect our employees and the public is to close the store off entirely.”
“It’s unbelievably hard,” he said. “I’ve been in natural foods for a long time. Closing your door to people that purchase food goes against my DNA.”
At least two small co-ops, in Minneapolis and Seattle, have had to temporarily close after employees tested positive for the coronavirus. From small grocers to national chains, some stores have boosted worker pay by $2 an hour amid the outbreak.
Houston said his store’s brief closure might preserve business in the long run. He said he’s “a week ahead of a bunch of other stores in coming to this conclusion.”
“I would love to think we can sanitize our way out of this,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s safe for people to crowd into a grocery store to shop.”
In Northwest Washington, the Broad Branch Market’s newest delivery method removes the possibility of human-to-human coronavirus spread: Deliveries are being made with robots. The small, six-wheeled computer-controlled vehicles resemble large white coolers.
After a customer places an order, the cargo hold is filled, and using global positioning data, the battery-powered robot buzzes off to its destination, generally a few blocks away. The customer is alerted to keep an eye out.
Such robots have been around for a while, often on college campuses, but are new to the Broad Branch Market.
“You’ve got to change the batteries a lot,” store owner Tracy Stannard said. “They’ve gotten stranded a couple of times, going too far. It adds a little fun to the dire situation.”
The robots are loaded with sensors and cameras, and they proceed cautiously. Each can carry two full bags of groceries. And they are fairly sanitary.
“It’s pretty hands free,” Stannard said. “We’ve been wiping them down anyway.”
If there’s one glitch, it’s that the cargo area is too small for the store’s long baguette.
Other businesses are reluctant or unable to switch to alternative delivery methods. Scott Nash, founder of Mom’s Organic Market — started in Maryland in 1987, now with 19 locations in four states and the District — said it doesn’t do curbside pickup or delivery and has no plans to.
Nash said the store is trying to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, taking precautions such as increasing the frequency of cleanings and encouraging social distancing, while also hiring laid-off restaurant workers. But a switch to delivery in the grocery industry isn’t sustainable for the long term, he said.
“Curbside and home delivery is a bit of a debacle right now with so many people placing orders,” he said. “I feel like with the precautions that we’ve taken, each person can — if they’re careful, mindful — be in control as to whether they catch it at the store.”
Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.