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Barb Richard is photographed on the balcony of her Toronto condo on Mar 26 2020. Richard has been in in self isolation since March 15 in an effort to do her part to plank the curve of COVID-19.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

As of midday on Thursday, Barb Richard’s provisions amounted to a package of pasta, two cups of rice and a jar of peanut butter.

It’s not like she didn’t try to stock up. Ms. Richard, 51, has been trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by remaining inside her apartment in Toronto, and staying away from stores. She has been attempting to book a time slot for grocery delivery from Metro, Walmart, the Cornershop app and the Grocery Gateway service owned by Longo’s, with no luck. Thinking she could maintain social distancing while using a pickup service, she tried Metro’s – the closest available location was more than 50 kilometres away. She does not have a car.

“I’m not in a dire situation like other people are," Ms. Richard said. “But I don’t want to have wasted this isolation period by going to the store and contracting it, or finding out I could have given it to someone else.”

As social distancing becomes more widespread, grocers are struggling to keep up with a surge in demand for online delivery. Until now, e-commerce has represented a very small percentage of grocery sales. Many companies have not built enough capacity to handle a sudden shift in people’s shopping habits.

“The demand has exploded for e-commerce,” said Metro Inc. spokesperson Marie-Claude Bacon. The company has hired more people, but there is a limit to how many delivery trucks with refrigeration systems Metro can deploy. Metro has seen delivery windows fill up within 10 minutes of being posted online. “Before, we could deliver the same day, within a window of maybe six hours, or the very next day. We’re very far from there.”

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Kadar Aden supervises a Metro grocery store's delivery orders in Toronto, on March 26, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has seen online orders more than double in recent weeks for its PC Express business – which has dropped the fees on click-and-collect grocery pickup – and has also hired more staff. Pickup windows have been delayed in many markets.

“We’re also trying new approaches,” spokesperson Catherine Thomas said in a statement. For example, Loblaw is exploring the option of closing one of its stores and dedicating staff entirely to online orders and pickups. Ms. Thomas did not specify when or where that would occur. “It’s a test that would address social distancing and the growing demand for our PC Express service.”

Loblaw’s home delivery service is provided through Instacart, a separate company that has drivers who shop a variety of stores on customers’ behalf. Instacart is now planning to hire 30,000 more shoppers in Canada. Order volume across North America has spiked 150 per cent in the past few weeks, and customers on average are buying 15 per cent more an order.

At Walmart Canada, online orders have quadrupled since March 12.

“Obviously we were not fully prepared for that,” said Walmart Canada’s executive vice-president of e-commerce, Alexis Lanternier. Orders have been 10 per cent to 20 per cent larger – even though Walmart has instituted limits on purchases such as toilet paper, eggs and milk.

Walmart has had delays but has been working to add more delivery slots. It plans to hire 10,000 more staff in Canada largely dedicated to e-commerce. The company has also reallocated some staff who were focused on other store operations to help with online orders. In addition to its own trucks, it also partnered with companies such as Instacart (which lists Walmart stores on its own platform as well) and restaurant delivery service DoorDash to help fulfill orders from the Walmart website.

Online grocer Fresh City Farms, which serves the Toronto area and buys from many smaller local suppliers, had its supply chain overwhelmed by the growth.

“It’s this compounding complexity of more customers, more deliveries, larger order sizes,” said Fresh City chief marketing officer Jenn Hay. “Customers are understandably frustrated when something they’ve ordered is either no longer available or doesn’t show up in their order, and it’s simply because the volumes are just so staggering. It threw all inventory projections out the window.”

Fresh City has begun sourcing products from wholesalers such as 100km Foods Inc. that usually sell to the restaurant industry, which has ground to a halt. Even so, it had to stop accepting new customers last Thursday; more than 2,000 people have signed up for its waiting list. Many of its customers are weekly subscribers who on average spend about $70 to $100 an order; in the past two weeks the company has seen orders as large as $1,000. The company also owns the Healthy Butcher, whose e-commerce business has surged.

Metro is working on expanding delivery but simply can’t accommodate current order levels, Ms. Bacon said. “Even if we increase the capacity, even if we hire more people ... the demand has increased too much, too quickly.”

Metro is now appealing to customers not to use its e-commerce unless they are experiencing symptoms, or are in high-risk groups.

“We just have to make sure that we’re able to provide the service to the ones who really need it,” Ms. Bacon said.

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