KANSAS CITY — The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak — and the patchwork of federal, state and local orders meant to contain it — is accelerating the shift toward online grocery shopping.
The number of consumers who said they are ordering more food online nearly quadrupled from 11% on March 1 to 41% on March 22, according to data from CivicScience.
Many are making the shift for the first time. Companies have been building out e-commerce capabilities for several years, but until recently consumers were slow to embrace online grocery shopping. Digital orders accounted for less than 5% of total grocery sales last year, according to Nielsen.
Mobile app intelligence firm Apptopia reported downloads of apps like Walmart Grocery, Instacart and Shipt more than doubled during the first half of March. Online grocery platform Mercato said its retailers have seen a 1,200% increase in account registrations since February.
Retailers and delivery platforms are struggling to keep pace with the surge in orders. Amazon, Target, Walmart, Safeway, Albertsons, Costco, Kroger and Publix are just some of the companies warning customers about potential delays as they race to keep websites running and orders filled.
“I feel like once we put something on the shelf, we turn around, and it’s already gone,” said Maria Sotelo, an e-commerce department manager at Walmart.
Some companies have implemented purchase limits on in-demand products like bread, butter, eggs, milk, frozen vegetables and canned foods.
“We have never experienced this kind of demand for the products we are selling,” a spokesperson for Stop and Shop, which is owned by Ahold Delhaize, said. “Manufacturers have instituted nationwide limitations on a number of products, which has prevented us from getting enough to meet demand in certain cases.”
Ahold Delhaize’s online delivery business Peapod added additional computer severs to handle the influx of orders. Others have added minimum order barriers to keep the service profitable.
Companies also are working quickly to add new workers to pick, pack and deliver the avalanche of orders.
Walmart is adding 150,000 new workers at stores and warehouses to meet online and in-store demand. Amazon is looking to fill as many as 100,000 positions. Albertsons announced plans to add an additional 30,000 employees. Kroger, Publix, Aldi, Costco, H-E-B and others also are bringing on thousands of new workers.
“We know millions of Americans who are usually employed at this time are temporarily out of work,” said Doug McMillon, chief executive officer at Walmart. “We're looking for people who see Walmart as a chance to earn some extra money.”
Instacart has a record number of shoppers gathering items for customers across more than 5,000 cities. The company is looking to add as many as 300,000 employees in the coming weeks. Hiring will be prioritized in states with the highest demand, including California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey.
“As this situation evolves ... it’s important that we continue to have a growing community of shoppers,” a spokesperson for Instacart said.
Companies are adding temporary pay hikes. Sprouts Farmers Markets, Raley’s and Weis Markets announced raises and bonuses recently. Walmart, Target, Albertsons, Whole Foods, H-E-B and the Giant Company all have boosted hourly pay by $2.
Steps are being taken to promote workers’ health and safety. No-contact delivery options are available at most grocers. Companies also are expanding their emergency and sick pay guidelines for employees impacted by the outbreak.
“We believe that by expanding our emergency leave guidelines, more of our associates can feel certain knowing that if their health is affected by or if they experience symptoms of COVID-19, they will be supported while they stay at home and recover,” said Tim Massa, senior vice president and chief people officer at Kroger. "We also want to make it easier for associates to follow our guidance to stay home if they feel sick and to do our part to flatten the curve.”