Online food shopping – A stress test for retailers and consumers alike

The increase of purchase orders in supermarkets online platforms due to the covid-19 crisis have saturated their systems. In a short period of time they have been able to react and improve their infrastructure. However, there is still room for improvement.

In times of corona, demands and needs change. The online grocery market has seen a year-on-year increase. This market in Europe is led by the United Kingdom, followed by France, Germany and Spain. Spain had online grocery retail revenues of $900 million in 2018, and the market was predicted to double in 2023. In times of covid-19, the doubling may happen much sooner! The demands for online shopping have increased far beyond expectations, and systems are pushed to the limit. We took a closer look at several Spanish retailers that have online platforms and deliver groceries.

Many vulnerable groups, especially the elderly, are currently resorting to online shopping. How do retailers cope with the unprecedented demand? There is no question that this is a stress test for groceries retailers. However, it turned out to also be a stress test for shoppers.

We ordered the same or equivalent products from three retailers (Hipercor, Alcampo and Carrefour) as well as certain products from one frozen products retailer (bofrost) between mid-March and mid-April. Purchases were made for elderly people (70+) and indicated in the order where possible.

Purchase experience

The first point we would like to make is related to the online purchase experience. We tried times between 6:00 in the morning and midnight. First, it has to be mentioned that being able to access the online supermarket to order groceries had been a struggle. Among the issues, pages were not opening; connections were cut multiple times; items already placed in the shopping cart disappeared.

We found that it was easier to reach the webpages in the early morning hours during the first weeks of the curfew. The systems were likely not prepared for the high volume of visits. Carrefour and Alcampo have improved the experience by restricting the number of concurrent customers in the online shop after introducing waiting lounges with notification about the waiting time. Such times ranged from a few hours when it was newly implemented to a few minutes now. While Carrefour limits the shopping time to one hour, Alcampo does not implement any limit. The access to Hipercor’s shopping area did not require any waiting period, and the shopping could be done without any problem now. Often, the webpages were slow to respond to user interaction (e.g. adding an item to the shopping basket).

During the first days, some items disappeared from your shopping cart while you were shopping. This was due to the high demand, making it difficult to complete the purchase. Online shoppers had to constantly keep an eye on all items in their shopping cart and identify which ones were no longer there and look for equivalents.

Purchase delivery

The major differences that set the online grocery retailers apart were:

  • Priority delivery for elderly people.
  • Time from order to delivery
  • Friendliness and professionalism of delivery service
  • Delivery of all ordered items
  • Delivery of chilled or frozen items at according temperatures (maintaining the cooling chain)
  • The option to have the retailer replace an ordered item with an equivalent product
  • Purchase ticket and checklist of delivered items (to compare ordered vs delivered items)
  • Customer service and complaints procedures

At the beginning of the curfew, deliveries were taking place within 10 and 20 days. The first order placed with Hipercor was scheduled for one week from order date. However, their customer service called the day before delivery was due, to notify of 8 days delays in the delivery, making it more than two weeks from ordering to actual delivery. By now, all tested supermarkets have significantly reduced their delivery times.

Regarding protection and safety measures taken by the delivery teams, those from Hipercor, Alcampo and bofrost wore gloves and mask as protective equipment. Carrefour delivery staff did not wear any protection. The person from bofrost was very friendly and explained payment procedures when prompted.

The groceries from Alcampo and Hipercor arrived in resistant cardboard boxes and strong plastic bags, respectively. Carrefour delivered the items in cardboard boxes that were not properly assembled and were not strong enough to hold the heavy weight of the content.

A major concern was the breach of the cooling chain in the first delivery by Alcampo. The temperature of items that were supposed to arrive frozen or refrigerated was not maintained. Some items were partially thawed. Even in times of high demand, this requires proper control to avoid quality and microbiological issues. This is a major safety deficiency and requires improvement. We do not know if Alcampo’s delivery vehicles have a cooling system.

Although all products were in stock on the date of order, not all of the items were delivered (e.g. alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, flours, fresh yeast and cooking cream). This happened with all the supermarkets, except bofrost which delivered all items of the order. During the ordering process, Hipercor offered the option to replace products with same brand items of different volume/weight or different brands. Carrefour and Alcampo have by now also introduced the replacement option.

There were also significant differences in the documentation included with the shipment. Alcampo included a side-by-side list of purchased items vs. delivered items. In addition to the detailed list, all items included a colour picture for easy identification. Hipercor included a typical supermarket purchase receipt. However, Carrefour did not include any purchase ticket or purchase order. In this case, the invoice had to be requested online after completing a form available for download on the supermarket’s website. This procedure is not customer-friendly and unnecessary.

Offers, valid at the time of ordering were no longer honored when the purchase was charged on the delivery date, which was often one or two weeks later. This is another major shortfall.

In all cases, there were items that were charged but not delivered. And this brings us to the customer service. The best experience was with Alcampo and Hipercor. Their staff was friendly and refunded the money of charged items that were not delivered, no questions asked. In the case of Carrefour, the waiting time to be connected with customer service was very long. On the positive side, the person on the other side of the line was understanding and helpful. They also refunded the money of items not delivered.

So overall, the experience with bofrost and Hipercor was generally positive while Alcampo needs to ensure the maintenance of the cooling chain and Carrefour services require overall improvement.

Communication with the customer

Another observation is the lack of communication of relevant information to the consumer. When we talk about food and consumer safety, we should not make assumptions and provide relevant information to mitigate concerns and minimize confusion, not only in times of health crisis. I have spoken with family members about their concerns regarding their online purchases. They have legitimate questions and concerns about the potential risk of products that may have been exposed to the corona virus. They are inundated with information about coronavirus and data they can barely process to understand the risks. They rely on experts to digest and interpret the data for them in a way that they can understand. And this is the purpose of risk communication. Food industry and retailers implement strict measures to ensure food safety, but this is not always communicated to consumers, leaving them with questions or, in the worst of the situations, with pseudo-information from unreliable sources.

After purchasing groceries online – something I have never done before – and talking to family members, I have identified the following gaps concerning the communication of supermarkets with consumers:

  • Which precautions are taken by the supermarket’s staff during the preparation of the order, e.g. are the staff wearing protective material, like gloves and masks? Is the supermarket or the storage areas disinfected every day or cleaned in a particular way to minimize the presence of the virus and other pathogens from the surfaces? Does the staff prepare the order by taking items from the supermarket shelves where they are more exposed to people or are the items collected from the storage area?
  • How the delivery is going to take place, does the delivery staff wear protective equipment? Will they deliver the items to my front door? Will they leave the items directly on the floor or will they place it in a cardboard or plastic sheet? Will they keep frozen and cold products at the right temperature during transport?
  • Guidelines or instructions for the customer about how to handle the products upon delivery, e.g. should I wear mask and gloves? Should I quarantine non-perishable products in a storage area? Should I disinfect all packaged items? Do I use regular soap, a solution of bleach or alcohol? What do I do with perishable items? Do I wash fruits and vegetables with a bleach dilution? Which dilution? If I do not have bleach suitable for food, can I use any other type of bleach?

Supermarkets should be able to provide information about safety procedures taken to handle the order and to make proper recommendations on product handling upon arrival. Ideally, all this information could be easily attached automatically to purchase confirmation orders, typically delivered by email. So the consumer can learn upfront and get prepared for the delivery. This information can also be included with the documentation provided to the customer with the shipment.

It is important that messages and actions are aligned, otherwise there is a risk of jeopardizing customer’s trust. To illustrate this point, the purchased delivered by Carrefour included a document (Figure 1) listing all measures taken to ensure the safety of the delivery: (a) decontamination of the shipment, (b) daily decontamination of delivery vehicles, (c) delivery team equipped with suitable gear, and (d) contact-less delivery. However, as mentioned above, the Carrefour delivery staff neither wore a mask nor gloves. Because one of the written promises was not met, the consumer has reasons to question whether the other safety measures are met or not.

Carrefour safety measures

Figure 1: Safety measures listed in the note included with goods delivery

In addition to the information provided to customers ordering online, the website should be used to provide safety measures and instructions to customers visiting the supermarket premises to minimize the risk of covid-19 propagation. Not all of the websites visited include this information. In some cases, the information is not easily accessible on the front page. The points to cover should include:

  • Measures taken by management and staff to protect shoppers, and
  • Instructions and recommendations for customers visiting the store regarding social distancing, hand-wash or disinfection options, and the use of protective equipment (e.g. face masks)

We acknowledge the efforts made by the supermarkets in a short period of time to deal with the extraordinary demand caused by the pandemic. Such efforts were directed to improve their existing online and logistic infrastructure as well as customer experience. However, there are areas for further improvement, including communication with the customer, logistics, measures to ensure the cooling chain  is maintained and consequently, the safety of perishable products.

First published at:

Publication date

10 September, 2020

Article author

Carmen Diaz-Amigo

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