Online grocery delivery grinds to a halt due to high demand in San Diego County

As coronavirus concerns fuel online ordering, grocery platforms like Instacart and Amazon struggle to keep up pace


Shoppers trying to avoid ransacked grocery aisles by ordering their goods online may be disappointed to realize delivery is now gridlocked in San Diego County.

Once offering same-day delivery, online grocery platforms like Instacart and Amazon’s Whole Foods have pushed back delivery times further and further amid the chaos of coronavirus-fueled shopping. By Monday afternoon, Instacart’s earliest delivery time was on Saturday. At Amazon’s Whole Foods, which only schedules deliveries three days out, it is impossible to order at all.

“No delivery windows are available,” the site reads during checkout. “Please come back later.”

Online ordering started to climb last week, when the severity of COVID-19’s rapid spread intensified.

“Instacart shoppers just kept coming around,” said grocery worker Tamara Long, who works in the meat department at Von’s in Rancho Bernardo. “They’re showing up in stronger and stronger numbers every day.”

An Instacart spokesperson said the platform is seeing bulk grocery orders, with shoppers buying much larger quantities of food than normal.

“This past weekend, we saw the highest customer demand in Instacart’s history in terms of groceries sold on our platform,” the company said in a statement to the Union-Tribune. “As consumer demand continues to climb, our teams are working around the clock to ensure we can reliably serve the millions of customers turning to Instacart as an essential service provider.”

The spokesperson said some markets will see delivery times vary, or “in some rare cases, be limited entirely during the busiest request windows.”

Bobby Brannigan, the CEO of a San Diego-based grocery delivery platform called Mercato, said he’s watched his sales swell in the past few days.

“Our order volume has exploded — up 1,000 percent — with the breakout of COVID-19,” Brannigan said.

Mercato, a tech company in Little Italy, is a small competitor of Instacart and Amazon. But instead of targeting massive grocery chains like Sprouts, Aldi or Whole Foods, Mercato serves small, indie grocers like Windmill Farms in Del Cerro or Valley Farm Market in Spring Valley. These little grocers didn’t have the resources to build out their own ordering platforms, so Mercato built it for them. There are 12 total grocery stores on Mercato’s platform in San Diego.

Brannigan said shoppers might have noticed these smaller grocery retailers are weathering the coronavirus storm better than the large supermarket chains.

“Big chains buy in advance, moving product from regional warehouses,” Brannigan said. “They’re buying stuff in bulk and estimating in advance how much they will need.”

This massive infrastructure can be troublesome in times of emergency, when buying product needs to be quick and nimble — and when the needs of the community change by the hour. Indie grocers, Brannigan said, are more agile than their big-box brethren.

“The independent stores are often working with local suppliers,” Brannigan said. “And when you’re sourcing products locally — instead of shipping from the other side of the country — you can pull them faster.”

Not all indie stores are able to survive the boom in online orders, however. About 5 percent of Mercato’s stores have asked the company to pause incoming orders, as it can’t keep up with the demand. But the majority are still operating at full capacity.