Tips and Tricks for Getting Groceries During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Savvy shoppers and retail experts share how to beat crowds in stores and get timely deliveries and curbside pickups

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Valerie Campbell has come up with a strategy to keep groceries flowing to her Manhattan apartment during the coronavirus pandemic. She uses two online grocery delivery services—FreshDirect and AmazonFresh—and fills carts on both websites. Then she periodically checks each for open delivery slots. As soon as she nabs one, she checks out with that service.

But here’s the pro tip: She holds onto the other order, too, updating her cart as she and her husband run out of items so that she can order immediately when a slot opens.

“It’s optimizing our chances of getting a delivery,” Campbell explains. Not that it's a perfect strategy. “Last week, FreshDirect didn’t deliver any of the meat we ordered," she says. "On the other hand, I scored 12 rolls of toilet paper."

During this pandemic, getting groceries can be a real challenge. The scarcity can go beyond delivery time slots. Items you order can run out of stock before being delivered, and if you venture to the store, you may find slim pickings in some aisles.

More on Food and Coronavirus

There don't seem to be ready solutions, either. Walmart has temporarily halted next-day groceries ordered online. Delivery giant Instacart upgraded its app with two new features meant to improve efficiency, but the company acknowledged to us that the features may not be available to all users at this time. Amazon announced that new customers to its AmazonFresh and its Whole Foods delivery and pickup services must join a waitlist.

If it sounds easier to simply go to the store, that may not be the case. The steps supermarkets are taking to make their locations feel safe can also make shopping cumbersome. Many stores are reducing hours, and you may have to wait in line outside—6 feet apart—then, when it's your turn, follow a one-way route through the aisles.

“Grocery shopping in the age of the coronavirus requires the skills of a military tactician,” says Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a grocery business consulting firm based in New York City.

So we asked grocery industry experts, professional grocery shoppers—the people who find and deliver your groceries—and consumers who have successfully navigated the new food-buying process for their tips, tricks, and tactics to help you get some food in the fridge, whether you take delivery, do pickup, or shop in-store. Here’s their collective wisdom.

If You're Using Grocery Delivery

Having groceries delivered—and specifying a no-contact dropoff at your home—means potentially less exposure to the coronavirus, so it's no surprise that you may find more competition for delivery slots. These simple tips can help you get your order filled as quickly as possible.

Listen to the locals. If you want to find out in real time what's available in stores near you, check neighborhood groups on social media. Victoria Mota of Maywood, N.J., says that she learned from a Facebook group for town residents that a nearby family-owned market had just started deliveries.

“People are communicating this way and trying to be helpful,” she says.

Local-knowledge sites like NextDoor and Patch are other platforms where people may report the winning strategies they’re using to get home deliveries. Oh, and don’t forget your local newspaper or TV station.

Double up on orders. Do like Campbell does in Manhattan and have two shopping carts going at once to increase your odds of getting a delivery. Of course, you’ll have to subscribe to more than one service. (Find out more about the costs involved with different delivery services in CR’s report on grocery delivery services.)

Check often for delivery slots. They open up sporadically, so your best bet is to load a cart in advance, check throughout the day to see whether a slot opens up, and check out as soon as you find one. Several people we spoke to have said midnight seems to be the time when they’ve had the most luck. If you’re using Instacart, you can try using its “Fast and Flexible” feature that automatically assigns a delivery time when one becomes available, so you don't have to keep checking; Instacart told us that it may be “temporarily unavailable in periods of extremely high demand.”

Specify substitutions. To increase the chances of getting what you want or close to it, describe not only the items you need, but also the substitutions you’ll accept. “If you order Rice-a-Roni but you've indicated that you'll take angel-hair pasta, the app will let me know that,” says Randi Winter, an Instacart shopper in Minneapolis. If the delivery service allows for even more flexibility, use it. For instance, on the Shipt app, you can choose "Use Best Judgment," which allows your shopper to choose a substitute for you if there is one. And if a service lets you know when the shopper is shopping, have your phone handy then in case they need to reach you. “If the product’s not there and you’re not answering my text message, I’m just guessing what you want,” says Winter.

Prioritize the items on your list. If a service's app lets you indicate the products you want most, do so. Winter says those are the first things she looks for in a store. When something is in low supply, your shopper might be able to nab it before it's all gone. But whether or not you prioritize items, don’t create an order that can’t reasonably be filled. “We can preview the items before we accept the order,” says Lucy Valdez, a Shipt shopper, who lives in Hollywood, Fla. “If a person is ordering five packages of toilet paper and five bottles of Lysol, I won’t take the order.”

Tip well. When a shopper sees an unclaimed order with the address of a known good tipper, he’ll grab that order ahead of others. “Around here, anything under $50 should get at least $5,” says Valdez. “If you want to give $10 or $20, that’s beautiful.”

Such tactics can also help forge a good relationship with a specific shopper, which can make it easier for you to get your delivery. Valdez says she keeps an eye out in the system to let her regular clients know when a delivery slot has opened up in her area. On the flip side, shoppers have told us that they take notes on their customers and will avoid the difficult ones.

Call food distributors. Suppliers that normally deliver to restaurants can be another option. Check to see whether those in your area are now taking residential orders. We found that the food distributor Baldor is delivering meat, poultry, produce, dairy, and other foods directly to the public in the Boston and New York City metropolitan areas, and in Washington, D.C.; minimum orders are $250.

If You’re Doing Pickups

Curbside or parking-lot pickup is at least as safe as delivery in terms of the number of people handling your groceries. Similar to independent delivery services like Instacart and Shipt, grocers like BJ’s Wholesale Club, Safeway, and Walmart typically assign one employee to pick, pack, check out, and deliver your groceries curbside or in the parking lot. Grocers of all sizes are now requiring their employees who shop for consumers in-store to use gloves and masks, too, Flickinger says.

Follow the same advice for deliveries in order to snag a grocery pickup time. Consider using multiple stores, and preload carts with each so that you can grab a pickup time when one opens up. Take notice of when slots typically open up. As with deliveries, midnight seems to be a key time. “I set my alarm for that time,” says AnnMarie Henry of East Nottingham Township, Pa., who uses Walmart’s curbside pickup service.

And don’t forget to check your local restaurant distributors to see whether you can pick up directly from their warehouses. For instance, Hardie’s Fresh Foods in Texas is selling produce, meats, cheeses, and other grocery items for pickup at its Austin, Dallas, and Houston warehouses, with a minimum order of $100.

If You’re Shopping In-Store

Social distancing can make shopping in stores tricky. Walmart, for instance, now allows only five customers per 1,000 square feet in any of its stores, roughly 20 percent of normal capacity. Here's how to get your shopping done as efficiently as possible, plus suggestions for where else to look if you can’t find what you need at your supermarket. Just remember that the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a face mask in situations where you'll be around other people, like at grocery stores.

Pinpoint the best hours. Type a specific store location into Google’s search and you’ll get a “Plan your visit” box in the company profile that lays out the busiest and slowest times for every day of the week so that you can see exactly when the store will be the least crowded. Some stores have special hours for seniors and other vulnerable consumers, but even if you are in one of these groups, don’t assume those hours are less crowded. “Where I live, half the population’s over 65, so I won’t even attempt going then,” says Mary Smiley of Lehigh Acres, Fla.

If your schedule is flexible, shop on Thursday, at about 10 a.m., after senior hours typically end, says Keith Fix, CEO of Retail Aware, an Omaha-based analytics company that tracks in-store consumer behavior. “According to our national research, that’s the sweet spot in which you have a chance to get in before it starts to get crowded,” Fix adds. Wednesday at 10 a.m. also is good. Fix says weekends remain more crowded than weekdays, even with many people working from home.

Open Table has also started accepting shopping reservations for grocery stores that help maintain social distancing, and in turn could make shopping easier: At Woodman's Markets in the Midwest and Shaw’s Market in Cranston, R.I., for instance, shoppers can sign up to shop at 15-minute intervals.

Map out your route. If you’ll be visiting a store that has instituted one-way aisles, it may not be so easy to backtrack when you shop. So write up a list in order of where you typically find items. Consult the grocer’s app, which may let you build a list in advance based on an individual store’s layout, and also check what’s on sale and what’s unavailable. Walmart’s and Target’s apps include features to help you locate departments and individual items.

Try the mom-and-pop shop. For hard-to-find items like toilet paper and batteries, try smaller, independent grocers. They may have the edge because the distributors that stock their shelves aren’t necessarily the same suppliers that stock big chains such as Target, Cub Foods in the Midwest, or Winn-Dixie in the South, explains Flickinger.

“Many of these food wholesalers are doing an excellent job keeping the independent retailers in stock every day,” he says. You may also find that some small grocers will deliver or offer curbside pickup.

Forage at the pharmacy. After the eggs have sold out at your local supermarket, you still may find them at CVS or in the refrigerators of a service station’s food mart, Flickinger says. You might try home stores like Lowe’s—still open as essential businesses—for paper goods and cleaning products that may be out of stock where you buy groceries.

Panera Bread is another unlikely source of groceries, but the national restaurant chain is now selling milk, bread, and produce out of its walk-in stores. And Open Table has a new grocery section that includes several California restaurants that have turned themselves into high-end pop-up markets.

Editor's note: This article, originally published on April 22, has been updated to include information about specifying substitutions and prioritizing items for grocery deliveries.

Tobie Stanger

I cover the money side of home-related purchases and improvements: avoiding scams, making sense of warranties and insurance, finding the best financing, and getting the most value for your dollar. For CR, I've also written about digital payments, credit and debit, taxes, supermarkets, financial planners, airlines, retirement and estate planning, shopping for electronics and hearing aids—even how to throw a knockout wedding on a shoestring. I am never bored. Find me on Twitter: @TobieStanger