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A Walmart employee loads groceries into a vehicle parked in a dedicated customer pick up spot at the Walmart by the Dufferin Mall in Toronto on April 5 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Arshan Shahid had heard the advice of public-health authorities, urging Canadians to help slow the spread of COVID-19. So when it came time to buy groceries, he decided to stay home.

The 22-year-old university student in Brampton, Ont., usually buys groceries at Walmart, so he turned to the retail giant’s online delivery service to place an order on April 12. It was supposed to arrive eight days later.

“They never showed up,” Mr. Shahid said. Despite that, his credit card was charged $130.

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Amid the pandemic, grocers have had considerable difficulty meeting a surge in demand for online grocery purchases, with longer waits for delivery and some items selling out. But some Walmart customers have noticed a different problem: They’re being charged for items they never received and, in some cases, entire orders that never arrived.

Like Mr. Shahid, dozens of customers have posted to Walmart Canada’s social-media channels recently with similar complaints.

The delays in refunding those erroneous charges is occurring at a time when COVID-19 has created significant economic uncertainty across Canada. Customers who spoke to The Globe and Mail said e-mails to the company generated only automated responses, saying Walmart is not able to reply to every e-mail.

Walmart Canada says it has hired nearly 300 new customer-service agents to respond to e-mails and calls. But those who called the customer-service centre said they waited on hold for two hours or more and, in some cases, never reached an agent.

When asked about the problems, Walmart Canada said in a statement that customers should not be charged for items that do not arrive and should contact the company for a refund if this occurs. Walmart said it has seen a rapid increase in online grocery orders, with tens of thousands of deliveries and pickups per day.

“In a matter of weeks, we’ve reached the demand we were planning for years from now,” the statement said. “… We want to thank our customers for their patience and understanding as we work through this.”

Mr. Shahid sat on hold for two hours before being disconnected. He then e-mailed but received no response. After waiting a week, he complained on Twitter. He received a refund on May 1 – nearly three weeks after he had been charged.

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Another customer, Jeremy Russell, had a similar experience when he found 16 out of 39 items were left out of his grocery order on April 13 – amounting to $57.61 in missing goods.

“We were like, ‘do we just write this off? Are we ever going to hear back?’” Mr. Russell said. Because of COVID-19, his partner is unable to work and they are now a one-income household. “How do we prove that we didn’t receive these items? The driver said they did the delivery.”

The 37-year-old lives in Mississauga and had always shopped for groceries in stores, but in an attempt to limit unnecessary outings, Mr. Russell decided to rely more on e-commerce during the pandemic. After e-mails and phone calls, Mr. Russell complained on Twitter. Eventually, Walmart called back. His refund arrived 17 days after the order arrived, but it was $9.44 short, and Mr. Russell had to get in touch again to receive the remainder.

Walmart is among those in the grocery sector classified as essential services during the pandemic. The crisis is causing more customers than ever to test out online grocery purchases, and retailers have raced to keep up – for example, Sobeys parent company Empire Co. Ltd. has accelerated the tests of its new Voilà e-commerce service. Others that are already up and running have asked for customer patience with order delays or items that are unavailable.

Kristin Biddie, a 29-year-old in Toronto, has used a number of e-commerce grocery services during the pandemic and has experienced delays, but Walmart is the only company that has charged her for an order that did not arrive – a total of $270.

“Everyone else has been very clear in their communications. I can empathize with the situation they’re trying to navigate,” Ms. Biddie said. But after her order did not show up on April 21, she was surprised and frustrated at the difficulty contacting Walmart to resolve the problem. Walmart then sent the order three days later, but with multiple items missing, she said.

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Amanda Wilton has been working from home in Toronto during the pandemic and avoiding stores, concerned about her asthma and other respiratory issues. Her Walmart grocery order on April 24 arrived missing $38 worth of items that she was charged for. It took a week to hear back from the company and another three days to receive her refund. A subsequent order through Instacart had no such issues, she said.

For Sarah Batty in Calgary, the same problem applied to an online order for pickup. The 33-year-old has been avoiding stores during the pandemic and placed a $340 pickup order for groceries for her family of four. On Saturday morning, she received an e-mail saying that the store was out of $29 worth of items in her order, but her bank statement showed no deduction on her purchase.

“I would have been fine without [those items],” she said. “For me, the frustration was that I was charged for items I didn’t get.”

Unable to get through to the call centre, Ms. Batty did the one thing she was trying to avoid: She went into the store and lined up at customer service. She managed to get the issue resolved in person.

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