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By Brad Tuttle
March 25, 2020
Lixia Guo / Money; Getty Images

In the age of coronavirus, online shopping has become simultaneously more essential — and more frustrating.

Residents in roughly half the U.S. states are being asked (or ordered) to stay home as much as possible to limit the spread of COVID-19. People are still allowed to go to grocery stores and drugstores to pick up items they need, of course. But at a time when isolation and social-distancing are strongly encouraged, online shopping sure seems like the smart way to go.

The problem is, some key retailer websites and delivery services are overwhelmed, and it shows. Online shoppers are frequently encountering sold-out items, delayed delivery, cancelled orders, inflated prices, and general confusion as they try to buy everything from Aunt Jemima syrup to Nintendo Switch consoles — not to mention toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Amazon, by far the world’s biggest e-retailer, is now taking roughly one month to deliver many items that used to be readily available for one- or two-day free shipping with its Prime service.

We went on a quest this week to help you try to find out what kinds of items you can actually still buy online now, as well as which purchases are likely to be delayed or simply sold out, indefinitely.

What You Can and Cannot Buy Online Right Now

Your local shopping centers may be closed, but the same stores’ online operations are generally open to accept orders. There are some exceptions: T.J. Maxx, which focuses primarily on the discounted “treasure hunt” physical shopping experience, has not only closed its Marshalls, Home Goods, and flagship T.J. Maxx stores because of the coronavirus, but the company has also shut down its websites for shopping.

But for the most part, online purchases of clothing, sporting goods, tech, furniture, and other merchandise at big stores like Best Buy, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, L.L. Bean, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Apple, are reportedly being processed and shipped without much interruption due to the coronavirus. Just be aware that customer service will probably not be at its best, for obvious reasons. The social media channels of stores like Best Buy, Macy’s, and Kohl’s have customer complaints about difficulty getting help with orders.

Toilet Paper, Paper Towels, Hand Sanitizer

But there are much larger problems. Namely, some items that are in particularly heightened demand because of the pandemic — toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes — are basically impossible to purchase online for delivery anytime soon.

Amazon lists many of the bestselling brands in these categories as “currently unavailable,” and there’s no indication of when they might be back in stock. Third-party sellers and Amazon itself may be accepting orders for certain kinds of toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer, but you should look closely at the expected delivery date: In many cases, items won’t be in stock for two weeks or longer, and delivery won’t be completed until late April or even early May. (Also, though Amazon has stepped up its efforts to combat price gouging, and it’s suspended some 3,900 seller accounts for violating its pricing policies, third-party sellers may still be charging far higher prices than what you’d normally find at local stores.)

Virtually all of these items are not available for online purchase from stores like Target, Walmart, Staples, or Costco either. The Target and Walmart websites allow you to see if these items are currently in-stock at your local store, but unfortunately you cannot order them online for pick up at the store. Presumably, Walmart and Target are not offering in-store pickup for in-demand products like toilet paper because inventory is so low, and because they are trying to stop shoppers from hoarding. But the end result isn’t good for social distancing, as more shoppers are inclined to visit stores and patrol the aisles regularly to stock up, instead of staying home.

Groceries

Buying groceries online is difficult if not impossible for many shoppers. As we reported last week, consumer interest in major online grocery services like FreshDirect, Amazon Fresh, Walmart Grocery, and Peapod has absolutely spiked. Delivery slots for online grocery orders are sold out for days if not weeks throughout much of the country. Even customers with existing online grocery accounts may encounter difficulty getting their orders completed, and many people who are trying to sign up for the first time with these services are effectively shut out.

Naturally, online grocery services are trying to accommodate as many shoppers as possible, and delivery may pick up soon. One service, Instacart, just announced it is adding 300,000 new independent contractors nationwide this spring to try to meet the surge in demand. Amazon and Walmart, among others, say they are looking to hire tens of thousands of new workers too.

Some popular nonperishable foods, which don’t necessarily need to be ordered via specialized online grocery delivery, are listed as sold out or perhaps available only in the store. In our (admittedly random) searches, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup, as well as most kinds of Ritz cracker products could not be ordered for delivery by Target or Walmart, though you may be able to find them in local stores.

Amazon showed a message stating, “We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock,” regarding certain classic pantry items, including Ritz crackers and 24-packs of Ramen noodles. As for Aunt Jemima syrup, on Tuesday a single 24-ounce bottle was being sold via third-party seller at Amazon for $15.50 — which is about five times higher than the supermarket price. (By Wednesday, this item was listed as “currently unavailable.”)

Video Games

Then there are select non-essentials that quarantined shoppers have scooped up in such great quantities they’re effectively sold out online. Unsurprisingly, a large portion of homebound shoppers are turning to video games to combat the boredom of quarantine. As a result, the popular Nintendo Switch is extremely hard to come by lately. When we looked this week, new Nintendo Switch consoles weren’t available for sale directly through stores like Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Amazon, and GameStop.

If you want to buy a Nintendo Switch right now, the only real options are to either purchase at a premium through a third-party seller (we’ve seen them for $460, or $160 over the usual list price), or look for a used console online. Neither option is ideal. It looks like you should have better luck finding the Nintendo Switch Lite in stock online and available for delivery from the likes of Best Buy or Target, and retailers seem to have some versions of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox consoles readily available for online orders too.

What Online Purchases Could Be Delayed or Cancelled

Amid overwhelming demand from shoppers, retailers have been focusing on the essentials. “We’ve changed our logistics, transportation, supply chain, purchasing, and third-party seller processes to prioritize stocking and delivering essential items like household staples, sanitizers, baby formula, and medical supplies,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos explained recently.

Likewise, Target says that among the measures it is taking are “coordinating stores, distribution centers and suppliers so that the things our guests need most – cleaning supplies, food, over-the-counter medicine and baby products—are fast-tracked through the supply chain and prioritized for re-stocking.”

What this means is that household essentials like toothpaste, canned soup, baby formula, and ibuprofen can generally be ordered online for delivery within a few days — assuming they’re not sold out. On the other hand, if your online purchase doesn’t qualify as “essential,” delivery could be significantly delayed, especially if you are ordering from Amazon or another overwhelmed all-purpose retailer.

Though delivery dates can vary widely depending on the product and your location, Amazon was reporting that orders placed on March 24 for many non-essential items — including certain books, smart TVs, coffee makers, L.O.L. Surprise toys, and Chromebook laptops — wouldn’t be delivered until April 22 at the earliest.

In other words, delivery could take a month or so for some items that Amazon was readily shipping to customers in a day or two not long ago.

Gauging how long it will realistically take for Target or Walmart to ship online orders can be a mystery too. Walmart’s NextDay delivery service, which gives free one- or two-day delivery for many orders of at least $35, has periodically been unavailable over the past week or so. Target.com tells online shoppers that certain items (food in particular) are only available for shipping via the Shipt subscription service, but when you actually try to use the service you’re likely to find out it’s unavailable in your area. In our attempts to order from Walmart and Target this week, expected delivery dates for different products ranged from two to 10 days.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard of many items purchased online from Target and Walmart being cancelled lately as well. The retailers generally don’t give a reason exactly why part of an order is cancelled, but it seems pretty likely to be an inventory issue — something that appeared to be in stock when they accepted the order was not available when the time came to complete the order.

We’ve asked Target and Walmart about whether more orders than usual have been cancelled recently, and to explain why cancellations seem to be happening more frequently. We’ll update this story if we get answers.

More from Money.com:

Coronavirus and Online Grocery Delivery: Everything You Need to Know

Coronavirus and Meal Kit Delivery Subscriptions: What to Know About Blue Apron, Home Chef, and More

Coronavirus and Grocery Stores: Every Major Chain’s Store Hours Right Now

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