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A Metro employee picks orders for delivery at a store in Toronto on March 26, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Lately, Michele Mizuguchi’s grocery-delivery service has not come from Instacart, or Grocery Gateway, or any other e-commerce options; it’s her sister and her sons.

The 53-year-old resident of Aurora, Ont., lives with lupus and her treatment leaves her so severely immunocompromised that even without the threat of COVID-19, she cannot go to the grocery store. For years, she has relied on e-commerce services – especially the Grocery Gateway service offered by grocer Longo’s – to have purchases delivered.

“Now, when I need it most, I can’t get it,” Ms. Mizuguchi said.

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What are the coronavirus rules in my province? A quick guide to what’s allowed and open, or closed and banned

COVID-19 has posed a dual challenge for grocery retailers. As restaurants have closed down, more people are cooking at home and therefore buying more groceries, putting a strain on supply chains. And as people self-isolate, demand for e-commerce services has overwhelmed many retailers’ capacity to fill orders for delivery or pick up.

That has presented a problem for customers who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 or who have mobility challenges, and have found themselves unable to access e-commerce services.

On Wednesday, Metro Inc. announced the launch of M Priority, an online form people can fill out to identify themselves as priority customers – either because they are over 70 years old, have reduced mobility, have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are in mandatory quarantine. Users can then manually enter items they would like to order and staff at the store will call them back to complete the order over the phone using a credit card.

Marc Giroux, Metro’s EVP of the Quebec division and of e-commerce, personally experienced the need for the service.

“My own father, who’s 90 years old, was calling me for help to do his groceries. We tried to [use] our e-commerce platform and unfortunately it was full,” Mr. Giroux said. “We really wanted to serve these customers and help them get food safely.”

The M Priority service is currently available from 135 Metro stores in Quebec and will roll out soon in 20 more stores in the province. By the end of next week, it will be available from 97 Metro stores in Ontario. The service is also currently available from 14 Adonis grocery stores in Ontario and Quebec; it will be in 40 Super C stores in Quebec starting this Friday.

In early April, a Metro spokesperson told The Globe and Mail that its e-commerce system provided no way to prioritize the service for certain customers over others. The new site had to be built separately and it came together in the past week and a half, Mr. Giroux said.

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Grocery retailers have been asking shoppers who are healthy and able to get to a store to shop in person while keeping a distance from others, and to leave e-commerce services for those most in need. But they have continued to be overwhelmed.

Other grocers have been working on further solutions. In Western Canada, Save-On-Foods has added online slots dedicated to customers who are seniors or front-line workers. Customers can identify themselves as such when booking a time slot, the company said in an e-mail.

Walmart Canada has launched a pilot program with more than 20 stores in Quebec, offering ordering by phone for seniors and people with disabilities or other health conditions.

“The team is working hard to increase capacity so we can roll it out across the country shortly,” spokesperson Adam Grachnik said in an e-mail.

Online grocery delivery service Inabuggy introduced dedicated morning deliveries for seniors and those with medical conditions on April 6. People can ask to be placed in the priority line by sending an e-mail to the service after placing their order.

Loblaw Cos. Ltd. is currently planning on a pilot program for senior shoppers in the coming weeks, spokesperson Catherine Thomas said in an e-mail.

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Metro is now contemplating how to manage e-commerce in the long-term, as demand continues to grow. That could include developing M Priority further, if the service proves to be helpful and popular with shoppers.

“For sure, COVID is changing consumer behaviour,” Mr. Giroux said.

In Aurora, Ms. Mizuguchi said she is eager to look into Metro’s priority program and any others that may become available.

Her family is supportive but does not live close by and she is loath to call on them unnecessarily.

“I’m also thinking of people that are worse off than me, because some people don’t have anyone to help them," she said. “But as an adult, just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to function on my own.”

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