The Spoon is headquartered just outside of Seattle, and with a rise in coronavirus cases here over the weekend, things are understandably a little… tense. This tension was on full display at my local Safeway last night, where the cleaning supply and dry goods sections of the store were picked over and barren.
The rapidly spreading virus has sparked a rash of panic buying here and across the U.S. as concerned citizens stock up in the event of a societal collapse. The Washington Post writes:
Shelf-stable and frozen foods were in high demand. At a Trader Joe’s market in Mountain View, Calif., the freezer section was cleared out of pizza and most ready-made meals by Sunday evening. There was no pasta or rice left. One woman’s cart was piled to the brim with frozen mushroom ravioli. Another cart was filled with six gallons of milk.
Facing empty real world stores and an increasing fear of being in public places, there’s a surge in online shopping. According to MarketWatch:
In the past 30 days, 21% of U.S. consumers ordered perishable, edible groceries online, [NPD Groupd analyst David] Portalatin said. That’s up from 18% at the same point last year.
All this online shopping has taxed even the biggest of delivery players. Bloomberg reports that Amazon’s Fresh and Prime Now delivery services have been overwhelmed, and yesterday Amazon said delivery from both of those services would be impacted as it strains to meet up with demand.
As people find comfort in shopping from home, however, it’s important to remember that human beings are still making those deliveries. The Seattle Times notes that the boon in shopping means drivers can make more money, but they are definitely putting themselves at risk:
Some drivers have begun using hand sanitizer before and after ID checks, while some customers are applying disinfectant to grocery bags, said the gig-economy driver, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the companies.
Faced with an amorphous, invisible threat that does not discriminate, could literally be anywhere, and will only get worse, our current delivery and logistical systems are going to be pushed to their limits. But as we’ve noted before, this outbreak could also help push forward technological solutions that require less human-to-human contact.
Robots like those from Starship could be an easy humanless way to deliver meals and medicines around the clock in densely populated areas (they’d still need to be sterilized). And self-driving delivery vans like those from Udelv could bring people bulkier items like groceries.
That’s still a ways off, especially since we haven’t had to lockdown any U.S. metropolitan areas (thankfully) yet, and the safety tradeoffs of autonomous vehicles must still be considered. So for now we’re still reliant on humans to make our deliveries. Those delivery drivers aren’t just bringing packages, they are serving as a lifeline to the food we need to eat. If you need to panic grocery shop to feel better, we can’t stop you. Just be sure you tip your delivery driver generously.