Faced with crushing e-commerce demand as more and more consumers hunker down at home, grocers are scrambling to fill orders and keep their sites from crashing.
Retailers are working quickly to add workers in their stores and warehouses that can pick and pack orders. Some are deploying nonessential office staff to man the front lines. They’re also reaching out to college students and former workers to fill much-needed stocking, order packing and delivery roles.
Albertsons and Safeway are seeking more than 2,000 store and online workers in Washington state, while others like SpartanNash are holding job fairs and hiring on the spot. Jewel-Osco has put up notices on social media advertising "immediate openings" for delivery drivers.
On the backend, retailers and technology companies are racing to better sync up order loads with available resources and to get a better handle on product stocks. They’re also adding servers to increase capacity and rolling out new features like order minimums to better manage their workloads and ensure orders are profitable.
Bobby Brannigan, CEO of e-commerce technology firm Mercato, said many of the independent grocers he works with have been overwhelmed by the recent demand.
“Stores aren’t used to this level of volume,” he told Grocery Dive. “We have stores getting 500 to 1,000 orders a day online. Ninety percent of their business is online because nobody is leaving their homes right now.”
Stores that may have previously had one or two workers picking and packing online orders now have as many as 20 doing those jobs, Brannigan said. Grocers are shifting workers into e-commerce fulfillment roles as customer traffic moves online. They’re also reaching out in every direction for manpower. Brannigan’s father, who owns a grocery store in Brooklyn and was Mercato’s first client, has called up neighbors, former workers and college students to stock shelves, work the registers and fill online orders.
With local governments shutting down nonessential businesses, including restaurants, thousands of workers have become available for grocers to snap up. But Brannigan said it can be difficult to onboard new employees at such a busy time.
“Not only is the job hard to learn, but the people who would normally show you what to do are all running at 100 miles per hour,” he said.
For the many retailers that rely on third-party companies to ferry orders to shoppers’ homes, boosting delivery labor is out of their hands. Instacart, which is seeing its highest-ever sales volumes right now, said it has more workers than ever filling orders on its platform and is trying to recruit more. To boost efficiency and keep workers happy, it’s easing penalties for poor customer reviews, adding a mobile pay option to speed up in-store checkout and automatically canceling orders for out-of-stock items.
“We’re continuing to see a surge in demand across our platform,” Instacart said in a statement provided to Grocery Dive.
Fairway Market relies on Instacart and Shipt to fill its online orders. As of Monday, all of the retailer’s delivery slots across its 14 stores were filled up. Mike Penner, the chain’s director of retail applications and technology, called the surge in demand “unreal” and said the company has added workers and made technology adjustments.
“We’ve done what we could as far as expanding delivery hours,” Penner told Grocery Dive. “We’ve brought in more people. But the capacity is limited to what we can get with Instacart shoppers.”
Retailers are adjusting their backend systems to better manage workflow and keep sites running smoothly. Sylvain Perrier, president and CEO of technology firm Mercatus, said his firm has been adding servers to help grocery clients cope with demand and trimming back any parts of their platforms that aren’t running efficiently. Mercatus also shot a short how-to video on how retailers can handle out-of-stocks and regularly consults with companies on how to optimize their assortment.
To keep from being overwhelmed, Perrier said retailers are focusing on matching their hourly fulfillment windows with customer demand. Grocers need to know, for instance, if they can handle 50 orders per hour or 100, and then set their internal workflow systems to match that. Retailers are also adding minimum-order thresholds, he said, and winnowing down their online inventory to items that are in-stock and in-demand.
“When you get in a situation like this, you still will have people putting in very small orders, and that has a tremendous impact on the labor when the orders are too small,” Perrier told Grocery Dive.
But one of the biggest challenges retailers face, sources said, is syncing up their inventory with online availability and demand. Grocers haven’t traditionally had to keep close track of how many SKUs of toilet paper, for example, they have coming into their warehouses or store backrooms, Brannigan said. As the movement of product onto shelves and into shoppers’ baskets accelerates at unprecedented speed, retailers are struggling to know what’s available for online fulfillment.
“The linkage between what’s available online and what’s available in inventory, there’s a massive disconnect,” said Perrier. “The retailers that are not doing it well, they get overloaded with telephone calls into their support centers.”
With calls increasing for consumers across the U.S. to stay home and practice social distancing, grocers face the daunting prospect that online orders will accelerate. Some retailers, including Weis Markets and Stop & Shop, have had to temporarily suspend e-commerce services. In the U.K., Ocado has stopped taking orders until at least Saturday.
But Brannigan said companies adjusting and that he’s optimistic operations will improve over time. He likened his job over the past week to “putting out fires.”
Brannigan said Mercato is seeing an influx of independent grocers lining up to move online after previously not offering the service. The company has sped up its onboarding process from a matter of weeks to a matter of hours. Mercato has contracted with an overseas firm to handle bringing more grocers online.
“Hundreds of stores are coming in that want to get online, and we’re trying to onboard them as fast as we can,” Brannigan said.