Walmart feeling online-orders crush

This undated file photo shows Walmart's sign in front of its Bentonville headquarters.
This undated file photo shows Walmart's sign in front of its Bentonville headquarters.

Walmart Inc. is struggling to keep up with a high volume of online grocery orders as the coronavirus pandemic keeps shoppers in their homes. It's hiring thousands of workers to help, but in the meantime, many items are unavailable and time slots for pickup and delivery are hard to come by.

The Bentonville retailer recently said that it's adding 150,000 temporary workers to help handle online orders, as well as store traffic. Walmart said Thursday that it has already hired 25,000 people. Many of the new hires also will work in Walmart's distribution and fulfillment centers.

A Walmart spokeswoman acknowledged in an email Wednesday that the retailer is seeing an increase in the number of grocery orders submitted for pickup and delivery, along with store traffic. She also said stores have had to cancel "a number of orders" because of the unavailability of requested items.

Regarding time slots for grocery pickup and delivery, the spokeswoman said, "We're offering time slots to customers for as soon as the same day and up to one day in advance, rather than time frames further out. This is a shorter window than we typically offer, but it will allow us to better serve our customers during this busy time."

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But those time slots fill up quickly. Customers on social media are complaining about the difficulty getting a slot for either pickup or delivery. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's own test of the services over a two-day period this week, using Walmart's grocery app, had similar results.

Efforts to place an order at Walmart stores around the state at various times during the day consistently received a message that no time slots were available for same-day or next-day delivery or pickup. The app doesn't allow for scheduling any farther out than the next day.

Also, items availability remain a problem. Many grocery items are limited to purchases of two at a time. Those include, not only staples like bread, milk and eggs, but 24-can cartons of soft drinks, hamburger and hot dog buns, and frozen dinners.

Fresh meats and poultry offerings are also scarce except for deli-sliced products. On Thursday, no chicken of any kind was available, nor any ground beef. Even 16-ounce packages of sliced calf liver had sold out. Product availability does vary by store, however.

The Walmart spokeswoman said the retailer "is working diligently to fulfill customer orders and remain vigilant in our efforts to do so. We have supplies moving across the country, so it will take time to get items back in stock and all orders on time, but it will happen as soon as possible."

Noting that the shorter time slot window does fill up quickly, "it helps ensure more items are in stock at the time the order is received," she said.

Sam's Club, Walmart's members-only warehouse division, is also being deluged with online orders. However, it uses the on-demand grocery service Instacart to handle shopping and delivery to customers. Instacart said Monday that it's hiring 300,000 independent contractors across the U.S. and Canada to meet the surge in demand for online grocery delivery.

The additional workers will help reduce the longer wait times for deliveries that customers are experiencing, Instacart founder and Chief Executive Officer Apoorva Mehta said in a letter to employees.

Because of the limits some stores have placed on certain items, Mehta said the company is working to ensure customers can order only the allowed number of items set by each retailer. If a customer's order is entirely out of stock, Instacart shoppers will communicate directly with the customer, sending photos if requested, and the order is automatically canceled.

And to protect the health of its customers and employees, Instacart has added a "Leave at My Door" delivery option.

Walmart and Sam's Club are not alone in experiencing these challenges. Retailers like and Target Corp. also are having trouble with inventory. Their subsidiaries, Amazon Fresh and Target-owned grocery delivery service Shipt, also are hiring workers to help get goods moving faster.

Keith Anderson, senior vice president of strategy and insight for e-commerce analytics firm Profitero, said retailers across the board are facing "just wildly different demand patterns" over the past month than in normal circumstances.

That's affected virtually every aspect of the supply chain, Anderson said.

"We live in a just-in-time inventory world where you're using all the data at your fingertips to forecast demand, produce the right quantity and flow it to the right places," he said. "And all of that has basically been turned upside-down."

While some categories will bounce back quickly and produce sufficient quantities, Anderson said, others won't for a while because they didn't anticipate the accelerated demand and thus didn't order the large amounts of the materials or ingredients needed to do so.

Anderson also noted that the "panic-buying" that mainly occurred early in the pandemic crisis has been largely mischaracterized.

"It's not that people are necessarily anticipating sustained unavailability of product that is leading them to buy in larger quantities than they otherwise would," he said. Rather, "they're being told not to leave their homes."

People are following the recommendations of health officials, Anderson said, "so naturally, you're going to stock up."

Despite the current shortages and confusion around online grocery ordering, however, there is a bright side. A survey conducted March 13-15 by the Path to Purchase Institute found a "substantial" increase in online grocery buying.

About 21% of respondents said they have started shopping online because of the pandemic, joining the 26% who said they already were. According to the survey, 19% of shoppers said they buy groceries to pick up inside stores, while 18% use curbside pickup; and another 18% choose home delivery.

Many industry analysts predict e-commerce has reached "a true tipping point ... as consumers discover the relative ease of online shopping options," the survey says.

Business on 03/27/2020

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