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A worker leaves Whole Foods in Jericho, New York with Amazon Prime delivery packages stacked in a cart.

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It’s Nearly Impossible to Get Big Box Grocery Delivery in NYC Right Now

Customers are staying up all night to get delivery slots on services like Fresh Direct and Instacart — and sometimes still failing

A worker at a Whole Foods location on Long Island with Amazon Prime delivery packages
| Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Like every other system deeply affected by the coronavirus crisis currently sweeping the city, big box grocery delivery apps — like Instacart, Fresh Direct, Peapod, and Amazon’s Whole Foods delivery — are struggling to keep up with the crushing demand for grocery delivery that appeared practically overnight.

So far, things are not going smoothly. Some customers have had to go to somewhat extreme measures to get delivery, such as waking up several hours in the night to check Fresh Direct or refreshing the Prime Now option for Whole Foods multiple times over the course of two hours. Others have had their orders delivered with a fraction of the food they were expecting to get, as the supply changes faster than apps can update.

It’s “like trying to get Radiohead tickets at MSG,” Niko Triantafillou of Dessert Buzz writes on Twitter.

As Dan Frommer of tech and consumer brand publication The New Consumer points out, online grocery shopping and delivery is “built for convenience, likely never intended to function under such load. But now that it’s essential infrastructure, it’s breaking in many places and ways.” Nationwide, between March 12 and March 15, online grocery orders were up by 150 percent over the same time period last year, data from Rakuten Intelligence shows.

The result: Customers are finding it nearly impossible to schedule their grocery deliveries. “My roommates tried to use Amazon Fresh and didn’t see any slots until May,” writer Aaron Hutcherson says on Twitter. A Fresh Direct customer wrote on Twitter that they haven’t been able to schedule a delivery slot for the past three weeks.

Waking up at odd hours has worked for some. West Village resident Sara Brandston, who’s been unable to sleep due to feeling sick, was able to get two Fresh Direct deliveries by ordering right after midnight, she tells Eater. Others also go by the early morning or late night ordering route on a variety of delivery services.

But this method is not a guarantee. On Sunday night, Brandston’s midnight ordering stopped working. She tried again at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., and 3 a.m. — also to no avail. Suzy Chase of the cookbook podcast Cookery by the Book, who’s used Fresh Direct regularly for eight years, tells Eater that her efforts to order at midnight have failed because the site has crashed.

When people are finally able to get delivery slots, receiving groceries can be a bumpy ride. One Instacart user reported having an order canceled two days before it was scheduled to arrive. A Twitter user who has been a Fresh Direct customer for “nearly 20 years” says that she scheduled a 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. delivery slot but wasn’t alerted when the delivery would arrive — forcing her to stay by the door for the entire delivery window. “That’s how the earliest slot is,” another Twitter user replied. “No doorbell, no phone call. I only did it once; it’s 3 hours of early-morning hovering near the door.”

Brandston slept on her couch while waiting for an early evening Fresh Direct delivery, and when she woke up early in the morning, it still wasn’t there. Then suddenly, Fresh Direct said the order had arrived, though it hadn’t. A customer service call later, the company had to reschedule it for later in the week.

An employee sorting packing tape at the Fresh Direct Headquarters in the Bronx section of New York City
A Fresh Direct employee at the company’s headquarters in the Bronx
Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

“They are working very, very hard,” she says. “I’ve been giving extra large tips, just because these guys are working straight out.”

Receiving all the right groceries is a gamble, too. A Peapod user who woke up every three hours between 12 a.m. and 7 a.m. to schedule their delivery timeslot reported that a third of their groceries in the order were out of stock. An Instacart user said on Twitter that half of a recent order didn’t show up.

Chase says that a recent Fresh Direct order showed up with more than half of her order missing. It then took her far longer and far more effort than usual to get $190 refunded for items that weren’t delivered, she says. “It’s all gone haywire,” Chase says.

Paying extra for services, or being a longtime loyal customer, doesn’t help, either. Fresh Direct DeliveryPass members, who pay $129 per year to get unlimited free grocery deliveries, have reported that they, too, are having trouble scheduling timeslots for deliveries. Fresh Direct super-users called Chef’s Table members can no longer access special delivery timeslots, Chase says. Customers who pay for Instacart Express — a $99 annual membership that touts unlimited free deliveries for orders over $35, among other perks — are seeing similar issues.

“I know they’re slammed, but also being auto-billed for Fresh Direct’s DeliveryPass program this month was insult to injury when it clearly doesn’t help us get a delivery,” one user wrote on Twitter.

And it’s a particular problem for people with disabilities and other underlying health issues who have been relying on grocery delivery for years as an essential service, not just as a convenience.

One longtime Fresh Direct customer in Westchester whose family juggles several underlying health concerns tried to get help from the company on Twitter, saying “we depend on you. We don’t have a couple of weeks. I’ve been up every 3 hours because of grocery anxiety.”

Meanwhile, the companies are scrambling to find ways to meet the demand. Whole Foods has hired more than 100,000 people across the country in hopes of increasing delivery window availability and expanding options, a spokesperson tells Eater. Instacart has seen a 150 percent increase in order volume over the past few weeks, according to the company, and daily app downloads on Apple’s app store have surged by seven times the normal amount in the past week.

On Sunday, Fresh Direct sent an email to customers saying it has “many fewer employees in our facility and on the roads” due to the crisis, but the company is streamlining its inventory and “aggressively hiring” people who work on delivery. Peapod has also said it’s trying to add more than 1,500 workers across five state, with a focus on delivery. Instacart is hiring 300,000 new shoppers over the next three months to try and meet demand in the U.S. and Canada.

Some popular local chains like Union Market have stopped accepting new delivery customers because they cannot meet demand.

For those who are working as delivery drivers on the front lines, the stressful situation is made worse by low pay and hazardous working conditions. Some Instacart workers have gone on strike to demand higher pay and greater access to protective gear like masks and disinfectant. An Amazon worker was fired after participating in a protest over unsafe working conditions at the online retail giant’s Staten Island warehouse.

A worker wearing a face mask receives a food delivery at a grocery store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn
A staffer receives a food delivery order at a grocery store in Bushwick
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Grocery stores are still open for pickup, as are bodegas and weekly farmers markets. But New Yorkers who don’t feel comfortable leaving the house — or cannot due to illness or other factors — are now seeking other ways to get groceries and other necessities delivered.

Some are turning to restaurants that have added pantry items, and many restaurant wholesalers who have pivoted to selling groceries directly to consumers have reported growth in sales.

But for grocery delivery on a scale, these niche producers who are just starting delivery to consumers may not be enough. Frommer of the New Consumer proposed a “surge mode” — where people can order outside of timeslots and accept delivery in wider windows, or a method to prioritize people with greatest need, such as seniors.

For now, though, people who cannot order delivery must simply risk going outside. Chase’s husband will be going for pickup at the Gristedes in the West Village as an alternative, she says.

“It’s frustrating,” Chase says. “It’s scary because I don’t want to go the grocery store.”

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