Britain’s supermarkets have admitted they cannot cope with the sharp increase in demand for online food ordering and said customers who are able to will have to keep shopping in stores.

Dave Lewis, chief executive of Tesco, stressed that home delivery was “at full capacity for the next few weeks”. “We ask those who are able to safely come to stores to do so . . . so that we can start to free up more [delivery] slots for the more vulnerable,” he said.

Andrew Opie, head of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are working incredibly hard to expand capacity for online deliveries, but as this is around 7 per cent of total food sales, physical stores will remain the most important way of getting food.”

Supermarkets have experienced a sudden surge in demand online and in stores — as shoppers stock up during the coronavirus outbreak.

Delivery slots are selling out weeks in advance as more people order more frequently and put a larger number of items into each transaction, while customers are finding a lack of supply of basic items in stores.

Prime minister Boris Johnson increased the pressure on online services this week when he said people should “use food delivery services where you can”.

Richard Dapin, a delivery driver for Asda in Yorkshire, said on Wednesday that the average order of around five baskets of goods has gone up to around seven. “Yesterday I delivered 22 baskets to one person, I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

Tesco is looking to hire 8,000 additional drivers so it can do more deliveries. Ocado is changing its ordering process to increase the slots available, restricting customers to one order per week and rationing more products. J Sainsbury and Wm Morrison are increasing the locations where click-and-collect services are available.

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The recent constraints on delivery — and rising number of collections — are adding to the pressure on stores and their staff.

“It’s been absolutely manic,” said one checkout assistant at a Tesco convenience store. “Last week the place looked like a plague of locusts had been through it. Even stuff that wouldn’t normally go has gone, because people couldn’t get the things they came in for.”. 

Availability is improving now, the person said. “Stock is starting to build up, but nothing can fill up properly because it was decimated to start with.”

Supermarkets have made generous arrangements for staff who are in vulnerable groups, need to self-isolate or care for family. But they have had to hire thousands more staff to provide a buffer against rising absence levels. 

“It’s difficult getting [stock] out because a lot of people are calling in sick,” said Patrick Meredith, a supervisor at a Co-op in London. “I’m working seven days a week just to help out.” 



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