Grocery Delivery Apps Are Booming, And That’s Bad News For The People Who Need Them Most

Grocery Delivery Apps Are Booming, And That’s Bad News For The People Who Need Them Most

Amadi Lovelace has been using Instacart, one of the most popular grocery delivery apps in the U.S., for more than a year. Three of four adults in her household are disabled, including herself, and grocery delivery is an important resource. Lovelace said she never had a problem getting same-day or next-day delivery from Instacart. Then the novel coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S.

Now, Lovelace, a disability rights advocate who lives in Pittsburgh, said it’s hard for her to get an Instacart delivery slot at all. A few days ago, she thought she had managed to get a delivery slot for “some time on April 22,” but by the time she finished shopping, the slot was no longer available.

“So hey folks, if you are able to mask up and go to the grocery store, I know it’s scary, I know you’d rather not, but right now people who physically cannot shop ourselves cannot get food because every delivery service is booked so solid that we can’t even get on the schedule,” Lovelace wrote on Twitter last week.

Social media is full of stories of people not being able to get a grocery delivery slot—it may have happened to you. However, Lovelace is part of one of the groups the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) considers at increased risk during the coronavirus pandemic, including people with disabilities, older adults, and people who have serious underlying medical conditions. These groups often have limited safe options for getting groceries during the crisis. And right now, the services in place are too frequently failing Lovelace and others who depend on them even more than the rest of us.

Gizmodo reached out to the main grocery delivery apps that operate nationwide or in a substantial portion of the country, including Walmart Grocery, Instacart, Kroger, Shipt (owned by Target), Amazon Prime Now, Peapod, and FreshDirect, to ask how they had been affected during the pandemic and whether they offered delivery services for people facing barriers getting groceries who may currently be in a vulnerable situation.

In addition, Gizmodo also reached out to apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Postmates, which are known for restaurant delivery but also allow users in some areas to request groceries and convenient store items. Neither Peapod nor Postmates responded to our request for comment. FreshDirect did not provide answers to our questions and instead pointed us to their social media channels.

According to Apptopia, an app intelligence firm, grocery delivery apps have (as you might expect) been booming in popularity during the crisis and breaking their daily download records. Between March 1 and April 7, Apptopia told Gizmodo, Walmart Grocery led delivery apps with 2.5 million downloads in iOS and Google Play combined. It was followed by Instacart (2.2 million), Kroger (634,000), Shipt (424,000), Amazon Prime Now (240,000), and Peapod (186,000).

Unsurprisingly, a number of these delivery apps told Gizmodo they have been experiencing higher-than-average or really high delivery demand. Instacart, for instance, said it was seeing the highest demand in its history. To meet this demand, companies are hiring thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, of shoppers. Others, like FreshDirect, said they are streamlining their product offerings to focus on items that are most needed and popular.

All companies claimed to be working hard to deal with consumer demand and serve customers, with some like Shipt and Instacart rolling out new features aimed to increase delivery slots, although some acknowledged that this isn’t exactly easy. Walmart said, for instance, that it’s not just about having delivery slots available, it’s about having the products that customers want available.

Only Walmart, which operates the Walmart Grocery app, offered specific delivery slots for people that could be facing barriers to get groceries.

On Tuesday, Walmart launched a daily pickup hour from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. at select locations exclusively for people most at-risk for covid-19, including customers over 60 years old, customers with disabilities, and anyone designated high-risk by the CDC, the company told Gizmodo. The new service is also available for first responders.

Walmart said that customers will be able to use this service from its website or the Walmart Grocery app. Customers will see an “At-Risk Only” slot and will have to state that they do fall into this demographic in order to use the service. Walmart said that its pickup service is contact-free, meaning workers will load the groceries in customers’ cars.

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Jonathan Lazar, associate director at the Trace Research & Development Centre, which works to expand digital accessibility, said people for whom getting out of the house would normally be challenging are facing new challenges because everyone wants to use their grocery delivery service.

“We have to make sure that people who normally rely on grocery delivery are not locked out during this time,” Lazar told Gizmodo. “I think that applies to people who are older, people with disabilities, any of the populations who are experiencing challenges right now.”

Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that companies that don’t offer specific delivery slots for people facing barriers getting groceries aren’t working to help these groups during the pandemic. But so far, efforts have not specifically been focused on making more grocery delivery slots available for these groups.

In a statement, Amazon, which operates grocery delivery apps and services such as Amazon Prime Now, Amazon Fresh, and Whole Foods Market, said it was focused on providing an essential service to as many customers as possible, including those who are most vulnerable. The company said that it had partnered with Gourmondo Co, a small local catering business, to fund the delivery of more than 70,000 meals to over 2,700 elderly and medically-vulnerable residents in the city of Seattle and King County during the coronavirus outbreak.

This week, Amazon announced that new customers to Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods Market grocery delivery services would be waitlisted because of “restricted capacity due to social distancing as well as unprecedented demand.”

DoorDash, on the other hand, announced free delivery for people 60 and over from more than 2,000 grocery stores nationwide. And last month, Kroger unveiled its first pickup-only location that it said was, “ideal for all customers, especially for senior and higher-risk shoppers.”

Uber said that its Uber Eats service had committed to offering 10 million free rides and meals to underserved communities during the crisis, and had to date funded and delivered more than 300,000 in the U.S. and Canada. It added that in New York it had partnered with the supermarket chain Stop & Shop to subsidise rides for older adults during senior-only hours.

Older adults and their caregivers are some of those affected by the high demand and reduced availability on grocery apps. Judie Haynes, a senior from New Jersey with an underlying health condition, has been a Peapod customer for 15 years and said she hasn’t been able to get grocery delivery from Peapod since late February because there are no delivery slots available. She has since tried various other home delivery services only to find the same problem, which means her husband has to go out to buy groceries.

“In our area, seniors are being told to stay home,” Haynes told Gizmodo, adding that she lives in a coronavirus hot spot. “I don’t want him to go. So if we run out of things, we’ll make do until we feel we can go out again.”

Amy Goyer, a family and caregiving expert at AARP, said there is a lot of frustration among older adults and caregivers over lack of delivery times. However, Goyer said that individuals are also adapting, realising they might have wait four or five days for delivery, so they plan ahead. Others are forgoing the apps altogether and asking their neighbours and children to bring them groceries or buying fruits and vegetables directly from local farms.

Goyer said that grocery delivery apps, and other companies that offer essential products, should ensure that older adults are able to use these services and are able to get the things they need. She also applauded apps that are making efforts and accommodations to ensure older adults get home grocery delivery.

“Anything that is geared towards helping older adults adhere to the recommendations and stay home is going to be helpful,” Goyer said. “Everyone is using these services now so it can be difficult for the 60+ to compete for those slots.”

Although it is difficult, both Goyer and Lovelace said there has been a lot of support for people facing barriers getting groceries from neighbours who check on older adults in their community, volunteer groups, and even strangers. Lovelace said that when she posted about her cancelled Instacart delivery on Twitter, many people on the social media platform offered to help her get groceries. It’s an experience I can attest to after experiencing covid-19 symptoms and being ordered to stay at home.

It’s clear that we’re living in unprecedented times that are pushing companies further than ever before. And although no one could have prepared for this situation, it’s important to adapt to it by understanding that there are some people who need this service more than others because they face greater risk if they go grocery shopping. In some cases, they can’t even do that.

This is not only important for grocery delivery apps, but also for those of us who use them. When my quarantine period ends, I will put on a face mask and go to the store. It’ll be a bit nerve-wracking, but I am young, have no underlying health conditions and thankfully have no physical problems. Unlike others, I can go to the store.

As for Lovelace, although she appreciates the help offered to her because of her post on Twitter, she said she can get help from extended family members. But she wants to shine a light on what’s available for others in the disability community and encourage companies to address the problem by, for example, having reserved delivery slots for people at high-risk.

“Since this started there have been requests for help getting groceries from multiple people every single day,” Lovelace told Gizmodo. “And people [are] trying to piggyback on other people’s delivery orders or trying to find an able-bodied or low-risk person willing to shop for them.”

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