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By Brad Tuttle
Updated: March 24, 2020 2:10 PM ET | Originally published: March 17, 2020
Amazon Fresh trucks sit parked at a warehouse in Inglewood, California.
Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images

Coronavirus guidelines say that people are supposed to maintain social distancing and stay home as much as possible. Even so, grocery stores are crowded around the country, and shoppers report that many items are sold out. At the same time, supermarkets have reduced store hours, to allow employees more time to clean stores and restock shelves.

When you combine all of these factors together, there’s a great argument that right now is the perfect time for people to order groceries online. There’s just one problem with this plan, however: It’s really difficult to successfully order groceries and get them delivered at the moment.

We spent several hours early in the week of March 16 trying to order groceries online from the following services: Amazon Fresh, FreshDirect, Instacart, Peapod, Target, and Walmart. Though we checked for different addresses in multiple states, and we were flexible with when groceries would be delivered, we were only actually able to place an order with two services (Peapod and Instacart), and the earliest available delivery date for one was more than a week away.

One week after our initial online grocery shopping tests, the U.S. experienced its first day with more 100 coronavirus deaths, and more than a dozen states had announced shelter-in-place regulations. Unsurprisingly, it’s become even more difficult to order groceries online, as shoppers seek ways to feed their families and stock up their pantries while avoiding physical stores.

It’s been particularly difficult to offer online grocery delivery to more shoppers because the service is not like regular online shopping. Groceries are obviously temperature-sensitive, so they cannot sit around in warehouses and be shipped by standard, non-refrigerated Federal Express or postal service vans. Produce, meat, and dairy products also should not be left on your front porch for hours like any old Amazon package. Online grocery delivery is instead typically offered only via special delivery trucks (whose availability is limited), and only in narrow time windows (to ensure the recipient can be home). Complicating matters further, some services only accept orders for delivery a maximum of two days ahead — and those slots are selling out rapidly.

Bear in mind that our shopping experiences were hardly comprehensive, and that things are changing so much day to day because of coronavirus concerns it’s difficult to say whether your own personal online grocery shopping attempts will be similar. But what’s abundantly clear nationwide is that interest in online grocery shopping is surging. Instacart told Money.com that the March 15 weekend represented the highest demand ever in the company’s history, and that downloads of the Instacart app multiplied for a factor of four over the past week.

Overall, if you are trying to order groceries online anytime soon, you should expect to encounter warnings like the one posted by Target: “Due to high demand, items may be unavailable or delayed.” More than one site crashed while we were shopping for groceries, and, in a couple cases, items added to a shopping cart one minute were suddenly listed as “sold out” and deleted the next.

What’s more, you are also likely to be frustrated when the time comes to complete your order — and only then is it revealed that there are no delivery time slots available. Our advice is that, whenever possible, enter your address and look up delivery availability first, before you add any groceries to your online shopping cart. If no delivery times are available, there is obviously no reason to bother shopping. Here’s more of what we learned about the major online grocery delivery services during the coronavirus outbreak.

Peapod

Of all the options, we had the best luck using Peapod, the grocery delivery service run by Stop & Shop. Yet while we were successfully able to order groceries from Peapod, it was hardly smooth sailing. In fact, it was impossible to get a quick delivery. We placed an order to an address in western Massachusetts on Tuesday, March 17, and the first date available for delivery was Wednesday, March 25. For several other locations along the East Coast we checked on (including random addresses in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York), all delivery windows were sold out for two weeks —which is as far out as Peapod will accept orders.

Peapod normally allows customers to shop online for groceries, and then gives a choice of pickup or delivery. But the pickup option, which costs $2.95 per order, is suspended for the time being. Peapod online grocery delivery fees are normally $9.95 per order, though you can save $3 by selecting certain delivery times. Basically, the delivery fee is discounted to $6.95 if you’re OK with a bigger time window (3.5 hours as opposed to one hour), which is probably not a problem for people nowadays because we’re all supposed to be hunkered down at home.

Before wasting your time trying to order at Peapod, go right away to top righthand corner of the site, where you can enter your zip code and click on “Find a Delivery Time.” This is where you can see if delivery is (theoretically) available to your address, and then find out if any delivery slots are open any time over the next two weeks. In many cases, it appears as if Peapod delivery is totally sold out through the end of March.

If there are slots open and a delivery time works for you, go for it. You can click on “Coupons” and “Specials” to browse deals (you can take advantage of many of the same promotions featured in the local weekly circular), and be sure to add your Stop & Shop loyalty number to your order. Also, figure out a way to remind yourself about when the order will be arriving. Odds are, the nearest delivery time will be at least a week away — and by then you may have forgotten about your online order and filled up your freezer and pantry with other groceries.

Instacart

Instacart works with a variety of different grocery retailers, including Aldi, Costco, BJ’s, Target, and Price Rite, and the company uses independent-contractor shopper/drivers to pick up orders in stores and delivery them to customers. So availability and grocery selection for Instacart orders varies widely, based on what supermarkets are in your area, as well as how many gig workers are around to complete the orders and deliver to you. One of the hassles with Instacart and many other services is that you can only find out what’s available after you give them your email address, phone number, and a physical address.

On March 23, Instacart announced that it is adding 300,000 more “full-service shoppers” over the next three months, to address spiking demand for online grocery delivery. These “shoppers” an independent contractors, who pick up orders and deliver them to customers.

We were able to complete Instacart orders for Aldi and Costco, for delivery the same day. The delivery fee for an order through Costco was $8.99, and Instacart warned that “prices are higher than your local warehouse” for many items, and that “Costco members also do not earn 2% executive reward on Instacart.” As for Instacart orders at the discount grocer Aldi, the delivery fee was $7.99 and the prices seemed roughly as cheap as in the store. In both cases, Instacart automatically added a separate service fee of about $2 to tip the driver, though you can adjust that number higher or lower.

Like other online grocery services, Instacart offers an unlimited delivery membership. It’s called Instacart Express, and with it you’ll get free grocery deliveries for all orders over $35. It costs $99 a year, after a two-week free trial.

Amazon

Amazon Prime members in select cities can sign up for the company’s online grocery delivery service, Amazon Fresh. Until fairly recently, Amazon Fresh cost $14.99 per month, but now there are no additional monthly fees on top of Prime membership. What’s more, if the service is available to you, you can get free two-hour delivery of grocery orders of $35 or more from Amazon and Whole Foods Market.

Amazon Fresh is available by invitation only, and you can request an invitation if one hasn’t already come your way. While there are no monthly fees for Amazon Fresh, and you only have to pay delivery fees if your order is less than $35, the service is only available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Prime membership generally costs $12.99 per month or $119 per year, and new subscribers are eligible for a 30-day free trial.

Unfortunately, Amazon Fresh was either not offered or did not have delivery times available for several addresses we checked. Another option to consider from Amazon (and Walmart and Target too, for that matter) is to skip the grocery-specific delivery services and instead shop online for nonperishable foods to fill up your pantry. Things like pasta, rice, canned goods, cookies, granola bars, and coffee beans can be ordered for regular delivery, often with free shipping and no memberships required.

Beware, however, that in our spot checks online, some popular food brands (like Barilla pasta) and products were mostly sold out or offered only via high-priced third-party vendors at Amazon and Walmart.

Walmart Online Grocery Delivery

Walmart says its online grocery delivery service is available in 200 metro areas in the U.S., and last fall the retailer expanded Delivery Unlimited, a membership that costs $12.95 a month or $98 per year and (as you’d guess) includes unlimited grocery delivery orders (usually with a $30 minimum order). If you don’t want a membership, can also pay for an individual delivery — typically $9.95 per order.

In our tests, it was impossible to actually place an order. After filling up a digital shopping cart with items and attempting to check out, we received the following message: “Sorry! Due to increased demand, no times are currently available. Please check back later, or change locations.” Depending on where your nearest Walmart store is, however, it may be possible to order groceries online for pickup.

Target

We were also stymied in our attempts to order groceries from Target. After adding groceries to our cart and heading to checkout, a message popped up: “Sorry, all the spots for today and tomorrow have been filled. Please try again later.”

If and when you actually can order groceries from Target where you live, take note that there is generally a $35 minimum purchase, and the delivery fee is $9.99. You can also sign up for a free four-week of Shipt, Target’s same-day grocery service, and get unlimited deliveries for free. After the free trial, Shipt costs $99 per year.

FreshDirect

FreshDirect allows you to place online grocery orders for delivery up to one week ahead. But, as with other online grocery services, FreshDirect was not available for any delivery times to several different locations we checked.

We give FreshDirect some points because at least it’s quick and easy to tell if online grocery delivery is possible or not. Toward the upper righthand corner of the site, you can add your zip code and check on available delivery times. Whereas some sites make it clear delivery is unavailable only after you’ve gone shopping and are trying to pay, FreshDirect will clue shoppers in before you even bother.

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