British Columbia

Online grocery delivery providers struggle with sharp rise in COVID-19 related demand

Some customers report having to wait for days for online food orders as companies assess options.

Customers report having to wait for days for online food orders as companies assess options

Spud.ca is one of several grocery delivery options that say online sales have spiked since the number of COVID-19 cases has risen. (Spud/Facebook)

When Kori Depauw and her husband recently returned from a trip to New Orleans, they followed Health Canada guidelines and chose to self-isolate for two weeks in case they were infected with COVID-19. 

But trying to restock basic necessities using online grocery delivery to their Vancouver apartment proved to be more challenging than they anticipated.

"The first reaction is definitely a bit of panic, a bit of anxiety," Depauw said. 

The earliest delivery time they could find through grocery chain Save-on-Foods was two days from when they placed their order, she said. But then as they tried to complete their order, they kept getting error messages. When they got through, the first available delivery date was pushed back another three days. 

Depauw and her husband had been away for nearly a week. There wasn't much left in their fridge except for some condiments and mouldy strawberries. Luckily, friends and family members stepped in to bring them a few essentials. 

"That outpouring of support has been fantastic," Depauw said. "But there are people who aren't as lucky as us. And I just I worry about those people."

Incredible and scary

The same story seems to be playing out throughout British Columbia as more people shop for groceries online — some to help out elderly parents, others to avoid busy grocery stories, and others still just to try out the service as a precaution. 

Peter van Stolk, CEO of food delivery service Spud.ca, says business has tripled since Friday at his four locations across Western Canada. People are buying more items per order, van Stolk says, and there's also been an influx of new customers. 

"It's been incredible — incredible in a way that's also scary for our community," he said. 

On its website, Save-on-Foods says it's "experiencing extremely high web traffic and demand for online shopping."

Instacart, the online service that delivers groceries for chains like Superstore, Walmart and T&T Supermarket, says its new customer growth rate has increased tenfold.

The company says it was still able to meet same-day delivery requests for most of its orders last week. It's also rolling out a new feature for customers to opt for delivery staff to leave orders at their doorstep. 

The exponential increase in demand has many food delivery companies struggling to keep up, while figuring out how to provide an essential service in a time of massive change prompted by COVID-19. 

Some customers, increasingly used to the ease of online shopping, have found that the service hasn't been reliable at a time when they feel they need it most. 

Finding solutions

Van Stolk says Spud is trying to adapt to a rapidly changing situation and is looking at ways the company can expand its services. 

At this point, however, the company has had to cap the number of orders it can accept because it doesn't have the staff or infrastructure to meet seemingly ever-increasing demand.

One option Spud is exploring, van Stolk says, is to offer boxes of food with basic necessities and prioritize them for people in need who can't leave home to shop — like people in self-isolation, or with compromised immune systems, or who are sick. 

Meanwhile, other stores are offering creative solutions to help those in need, like seniors who are most at risk of getting and dying from COVID-19. 

Loblaws's website says it's eliminating pick-up fees and reducing prices for home-delivered items to contend with the "current public health situation." 

In Kitimat, B.C., a No Frills grocery store says it will open an hour early on Monday for seniors to shop in a "less crowded and stressful environment." 

In a Facebook post, the company said the store would be "stocked, cleaned and sanitized overnight."

 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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