The Real Reason It’s So Hard to Order Groceries Online Right Now

Turns out online grocery shopping was not built like the rest of e-commerce

Zara Stone
Marker
Published in
7 min readApr 24, 2020

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An animation of long cartoon arms and hands putting produce and groceries in a shopping cart.
Illustration: Maria Chimishkyan

In New York, Amanda Wood has been waiting more than two weeks for an Amazon Fresh delivery slot. Her order includes bread, eggs, toilet rolls, and diapers. “Diapers are the priority,” says Wood, who has an eight-month-old son. Wood’s a first-time online grocery shopper, and so far, she’s unimpressed with the process. She spent over an hour loading up her online cart, only to find numerous items suddenly “out of stock” at checkout, and no free delivery slots available. “Why did they let me think I could order it if they didn’t have it?” she says. “If I wasn’t in lockdown, I would never shop like this again.”

Wood’s pain points echo that of millions of Americans, whose attempts at online grocery shopping have been a source of frustration — so much so, that some enterprising people resorted to bots to snatch up delivery slots. But with supermarket foot traffic down, why is it so hard to order groceries to our homes? The answer: a complex snarl of bureaucracy, lack of investment, outdated systems, and antiquated store designs.

For starters, online grocers just weren’t ready for this. “This level of online shopping was, at best, forecast to occur five years from now,” says David Bishop, a partner at grocery research consultancy Brick Meets Click. “The demand has overwhelmed the capacity of the retailers.” In 2019, Bishop reports that 6.3% of grocery-related spending was through online orders, bringing in around $29 billion in U.S. orders alone. That’s a lot of green, but it’s a fraction of the $650 billion industry. “Shopping online costs more for the retailer, and was a low priority for grocery stores,” Bishop says. “They offered it as an add-on, not a core part of their business.”

Everything flipped this March. With shelter-in-place orders across the country, online groceries are now a hot commodity. About 40% of orders come from first-time shoppers, according to Gordon Hasket Research. But the expectation of fresh food, straight to your door, a la Amazon packages, is failing across the board, as Whole Foods, Safeway, Peapod, Kroger, Target, Shipt, Instacart, and others lack the manpower, inventory, and infrastructure…

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Zara Stone
Marker

Tech+Culture f/lance journo. www.zarastone.net Bylines: OneZero, Marker, Atlantic, Forbes, etc. Author: The Future of Science Is Female https://bit.ly/stm202