Home delivery retailers and box schemes have seen demand skyrocket over the last week due to the coronavirus outbreak and government advice that people stay home and reduce social contact.
People self-isolating, or choosing to avoid public shopping spaces, have driven the spike in demand, which saw organic veg box company Riverford pause orders and new customer registrations, queues to access online retailer Ocado’s website, and two-week long waits for delivery slots from major supermarkets.
Riverford recorded its highest ever number of deliveries outside of Christmas, driven by existing customers switching to a weekly order, or adding more items to regular orders. Staff at the employee-owned business have been redeployed from sales and marketing to customer services, the packhouse and as van drivers to help pack and deliver boxes.
“We’ve seen unprecedented demand at very short notice, putting huge strain on our box-packing lines and drivers. To help us catch up, we had to temporarily stop taking any new orders or accepting new customers,” said managing director, Rob Haward.
“We will re-open the website shortly and will continue to prioritise our loyal and existing customers where we are seeing a huge increase in demand. New customers can register their details to join a waiting list and we’ll be in touch as soon as we can take your order.”
There are no issues with supply of vegetables to Riverford, Haward added, thanks to an unusually plentiful UK season and gluts in produce including cauliflowers and purple sprouting broccoli. Imports from Spain and Italy to the Devon-based business have not been affected by the outbreak.
Meanwhile, fresh produce aisles at major supermarkets have been emptied as shoppers anticipating weeks of isolation and potential lockdowns.
To counter stockpiling of essentials, supermarkets including Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have introduced rationing of three grocery items per person and expanded ‘click and collect’ services to take the pressure off home delivery.
Food policy expert, Professor Tim Lang, tweeted that: “There's currently too little food advice for dealing with the UK shut-down. Crisis food planning (what there is) is so far behind closed doors or left to retailers. In crises, food is forgotten by politicians unless public speaks.”
It comes as the government faced criticism for failing to adequately prepare the UK’s food businesses or the public for the crisis.
Last weekend, it was the major supermarkets who were the first to warn against stockpiling, writing in an open letter in mainstream newspapers to ask people to “be considerate in the way they shop”.
Writing to customers by email, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, Mike Coupe, said: “We still have enough food for everyone – if we all just buy what we need for us and our families.”
Elsewhere, the rush on food and other supplies, including toilet roll, have left food bank donations dwindling.
Director of Totnes-based Food in the Community, which supplies many food banks in the South West, Chantelle Norton, said demand has risen as more people are becoming vulnerable.
“Single parent families are becoming fearful about what happens if they get sick and can’t work, and those with health conditions are now at home in isolation,” she said. “It is always the most vulnerable who get hit first. Some people just can’t afford to buy two weeks of food in one go.”