Across the country, millions of consumers are turning to Fresh Direct, Instacart Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Peapod and other services to fill their fridges via online delivery rather than brave going to a supermarket.

(Bloomberg)—Cara McIlwaine recently lost her marketing job due to the economic collapse wrought by the coronavirus. Finding a new gig at the moment isn’t easy, and it doesn’t help that she’s had to spend just as much time lately on another essential projectsecuring an online grocery delivery slot.

For four days last month, McIlwaine, who has a toddler at home, tried and failed to secure a delivery time from Fresh Direct Inc., resorting to obscure Reddit forums to discern the time when new slots came available. The screen listing available delivery windows would invariably freeze, and when it came back, everything was taken.

“It’s just like Ticketmaster,” she said. “I genuinely don’t think I will ever get a time again.”

Across the country, millions of consumers are turning to Fresh Direct, Instacart Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Peapod and other services to fill their fridges via online delivery rather than brave going to a supermarket. But many are finding that the online grocery networks have been completely knocked flat by a triple whammy of unprecedented demand, unreliable inventory and unavailable employees. While early reports from the pandemic suggested that shuttered stores and shut-in consumers would be a boon for ecommerce, the sudden growth spurt has grocers scrambling to soothe harried shoppers and worried whether disgruntled first-time web shoppers will go back online once the crisis passes.

“Everyone is struggling,” said Brendan Witcher, a digital strategy analyst at Forrester Research. “Supply chains are designed to not break from a single incident, but now multiple incidents are hitting all at once and that has caused a breakdown. People in the industry know the reasons, but the average consumer does not know why there is a problem. All they know is this is a bad experience.”

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Fresh Direct said in a social media posting that it’s “working around the clock” to fill orders but it has many fewer employees. “An easy solution is not in sight,” it said.

Before the pandemic, online shoppers accounted for about 5% of the $800 billion U.S. grocery market, with most online orders going to Walmart, Instacart and Amazon. The social-distancing era could easily double that, some analysts thought.  A survey from RBC Capital found that more than a third of those who have shopped for groceries online over the past month were doing so for the first time.

Such rosy projections, though, don’t square with the angst-ridden reality many people now face. Nearly one in three Americans surveyed by market researcher CivicScience on April 6 said they had a problem with a recent online order. That explains why the likelihood that a shopper will use a specific service again plummeted from 74% in August to 43% in March, according to Brick Meets Click, a retail sales and marketing firm.

Take Steve Faktor, who runs an innovation consultancy in New York. He’s a big fan of Trader Joe’s, but the quirky chain doesn’t deliver in New York City anymore and Faktor could do without the long queues and masks. So he tried Fresh Direct, only to be stymied by a dearth of delivery slots.

“People like me are searching for options right now,” he said. “I know times are challenging, but it’s a missed opportunity for them.”

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Mason Kalfus, a 44-year-old legal recruiter in Washington, D.C., has taken to shopping at Fresh Direct, Amazon and occasionally Peapod or Instacart.  “All of the services now are a disaster,” he says, ticking off his grievances. He’s annoyed at Amazon, which fulfills some online orders through its Whole Foods Market chain, for allowing him to fill an entire cart when there were no delivery slots available, “so I just wasted all that time.”

Fresh Direct—which doesn’t operate any stores and delivers from warehouses along the East Coast—earned his ire for not communicating what items in his basket were out of stock until he submitted his order, like the low-sodium imported lacey swiss cheese. So instead of  $100 of groceries, he ended up with just $23 worth.

Kalfus is one of many shoppers hedging their slot bets, downloading multiple apps and refreshing order pages at all hours of the day in the hopes that a precious window will open. Downloads of Walmart’s grocery app rose 164% over the past five weeks, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg, while the number of active shoppers on Instacart’s platform has grown from 200,000 to more than 350,000. “The customer demand we expected over the next 2-4 years has happened on the Instacart platform in the last two-to-four weeks,” CEO Apoorva Mehta said.

Traffic to Peapod, which is owned by the U.S. subsidiary of European grocer Ahold Delhaize, has risen as much as fivefold on certain days recently, ecommerce chief J.J. Fleeman said in an interview.

But all that traffic means little if customers can’t buy anythingdelivery slots for Peapod in some high-demand zip codes are sold out for two weeks, Fleeman said, so it’s adding drivers and has ordered several thousand new wrist-mounted mobile devices that help associates fulfill orders.

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Walmart has compressed its window of pickup slots from one week to two or three days to ease the burden on its more than 40,000 online order-pickers and reduce the potential for out-of-stock items. Instacart has introduced a service called “Fast and Flexible” whereby customers can get orders picked by the next available Instacart shopper, rather than schedule it for a specific window.

While some shoppers say they sympathize, others are not so kind, and conspiracy theories now abound on social media and Reddit forums about nefarious delivery algorithms, along with accusations that online grocers are giving longtime users short shrift to lure new customers on board. It doesn’t help that some workers at Instacart and Shipt, a delivery service owned by Target Corp. that delivers to its customers and those of other retailers, have walked off the job to protest what they claim are unsafe working conditions.  Some intrepid web developers have even created browser extensions — bots, basically — that will scour delivery slots and ping you when one opens up.

Kelly Caruso, Shipt’s CEO, said the company will supply safety kits with gloves and hand sanitizer to those who pick groceries in high-risk areas. Instacart said it “absolutely” respects the rights of workers to voice their concerns.

Some smaller grocers are going old school to keep shoppers happy. Caputo’s, a chain of seven supermarkets in the Chicago suburbs, had to suspend home deliveries when it got too busy. But when an elderly person who’s a good customer called, Matt Idstein, the company’s ecommerce director, took her order, found her items in the aisles, threw the bags in his own car and dropped it all off at her house.

“She thought I was just a new delivery driver,” Idstein says. “She really had no idea.”

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