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Singapore online grocer PurelyFresh has seen a deluge of orders since the social distancing measures began. Photo: Screengrab

Coronavirus Singapore: online grocers see ‘explosion in demand’ amid partial lockdown

  • Some retailers are seeing up to triple the demand as Singapore residents stay home during the four-week circuit breaker
  • This has strained resources, including manpower, delivery vans, and supplies, prompting some frustrated shoppers to visit a physical store instead
As Singapore enters the second week of a month-long partial lockdown, during which social gatherings are banned and the use of face masks is mandatory for those leaving home, online grocery websites are seeing a deluge of orders from people shopping for daily necessities.
The city state is seeing a third wave of coronavirus infections, with total reported cases reaching 6,588 on Sunday – the highest official figures in Southeast Asia. Authorities have discouraged people from going out, unless it is for essential activities such as exercising or buying food, to curb community transmissions.

Singapore residents have more than 40 online shopping options, including popular brands such as RedMart, Shopee, and Ea Mart. Most of these online stores sell fresh produce and waive delivery fees if shoppers spend a minimum of about S$50 (US$35.50).

But the surge in demand has left grocers struggling to meet orders, with many facing a shortage on almost all fronts: staffing, delivery vans, and supplies.

In a message to shoppers, Marketfresh said it had reached its maximum capacity for orders until the end of April, and that it would “use third-party couriers to relieve our current bottlenecks at no extra cost to our customers”.

Khor Chin Puang, founder of Marketfresh, said daily orders had risen threefold since the strict social distancing measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak were implemented last week.

“Every facet of our fulfilment process has buckled under the initial explosion in demand. Our old sorting process was inefficient and error-prone. Our vendors could not pack their produce fast enough,” he said.

Khor added there was no space in the market to pack orders. Marketfresh processes up to 25 orders on a regular day, works with 17 vendors and has five employees. Since last week, they have handled up to 60 orders per day.

Chee Song Foods, a small retailer which has an online store selling halal-certified meat and frozen food, said orders had risen by 45 per cent since February, the same week Singapore raised its outbreak alert status to the second-highest level.

Jeffery Loh, its director, said the company faced issues sending out orders on time.

“We did not have enough trucks to cater to this increase but we solved it by working closely with some of our logistics partners,” he said. “We also came up with new fruit and vegetable bundles for online groceries, and delivered them directly from our production plants and farms [to cut down on delivery time].”

Going to the shop is really much less of a hassle [than ordering online] now.
Tintin Ong-Denila, a shopper

Other small retailers and delivery providers like Dei and Halal Mart SG included a message on their homepage, telling shoppers that they were faced with an increased volume of orders and to expect a delay in deliveries or a shortage of products.

When This Week In Asia visited the websites of Cold Storage and RedMart on Sunday afternoon, there were no available delivery slots and shoppers were asked to check again at a later stage.

The delivery issues have driven some frustrated shoppers to go to a physical store instead.

Cold Storage says it has issues with stock availability and delivery slots. Photo: Screengrab

Customer service officer Cammie Chua, 32, said she encountered problems when trying to check out items from an online store.

“I got my item in cart, but with no delivery slots for my area, I had to wait,” she said. “When there was a slot for my area, some of the items in my cart were out of stock. [To] secure a delivery slot, I had to visit the app and monitor it every day.”

Chua ended up visiting a supermarket near her home. “I am concerned about social distancing when I am out, but [if necessary] I’ll just tell the person around me to move a little [farther], and they would understand,” she said.

For accountant Tintin Ong-Denila, 37, her family has decided to minimise the number of trips each member makes to the supermarket.

“We decided only one of us will go next time, unless we have a lot to carry. Going to the shop is really much less of a hassle [than ordering online] now,” she said.

People practise social distancing as they queue up in a supermarket in Singapore on April 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters

NTUC Fairprice, Singapore’s largest supermarket operator, said that website visits had tripled in the last two months and it was trying to upgrade its online grocery infrastructure.

The supermarket chain hired and trained 150 staff to become skilled pickers and packers, and converted a physical store into another dedicated fulfilment centre for online orders.

It also introduced a new service fee of S$3.99 per online order as part of efforts to increase the number of delivery slots by 25 per cent and its online capacity by 30 per cent.

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The new cost sparked complaints from some shoppers, leading Ho Ching, the wife of the prime minister, to write on Facebook that people should “stop yelping like a spoilt kid wanting more and more without putting in any effort to help others”.

Ho, who is CEO of Singapore’s state investment firm Temasek Holdings, said service fees would go to the additional costs needed to keep up with the surge in demand.

“For everyone who wishes to have delivery for free, please step up and volunteer to do delivery for the rest of us,” she wrote. “That would be a real contribution to the rest of us, especially the single, elderly or vulnerable among us.”

Meanwhile, some measures have emerged to help shoppers and retailers cope with the surge in demand.

In a notice on its website, RedMart said it would cap orders at 35 items, reducing its range of products to include only essential products and limiting one order per account each day. Orders exceeding 100kg would also be subject to cancellation.

RedMart said it was “working hard to manage this increase” and hoped to “serve a higher number of customers and communities in this challenging time”.

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Blaze Guard, a community initiative, has produced an app for people to check available delivery slots with online stores like NTUC FairPrice, Giant and Sheng Siong.

After entering their postcode, available delivery slots will show up and shoppers can visit stores directly from the website to check out their cart.

For other Singaporeans, a little patience goes a long way.

Selwyn Joseph, 37, a chef, urged users of online grocery sites to be calm. “I’m staying positive and trying to adapt,” he said.