British online grocer Ocado warns of “exceptionally high demand” as coronavirus spreads

Ocado has warned customers to order early due to high demand.
Ocado has warned customers to order early due to high demand.
Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
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Online grocery stalwart Ocado has advised customers to place their orders early, due to “exceptionally high demand.”

“More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders,” the British company wrote in a recent email to customers. “As a result, delivery slots are selling out quicker than expected.” Ocado’s stock rose more than 6% in late afternoon trading on Monday.

Ocado suggests placing grocery orders two to three days in advance and booking a weekday delivery slot, which tend to be less busy. The company didn’t explicitly connect the surge in demand to coronavirus, and declined to comment further to Reuters. But a quick search of Ocado’s website by Quartz, on Monday afternoon London time, showed that hand sanitizer is almost entirely sold out.

The online grocer’s advisory comes as the spread of coronavirus accelerates in the UK, with 40 cases as of Monday. Prime minister Boris Johnson said after an emergency meeting that the novel virus is “likely” to spread in the UK, while Public Health England has called widespread transmission of the virus “highly likely.” The PM’s office plans to publish a UK-wide plan tomorrow for tackling the virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19.

In China, the coronavirus outbreak led online orders of meals and groceries to spike as people looked to avoid crowded locations like supermarkets. Delivery companies have been forced to adapt quickly to the increased demand and change in buying patterns, with more customers interested in groceries than takeout. Meituan and, China’s two biggest delivery platforms, also launched “contactless” delivery services allowing couriers to drop orders at a designated area for pickup by the customer, thus eliminating any in-person interaction between the two.

It is in theory preferable for sick people to order their food online during an outbreak than to journey to a store where they’re likely to infect others. In practice, whether delivery services could be an effective containment step will depend on how well they’re managed and what safety precautions are put in place for delivery workers who end up on the frontline.