Press "Enter" to skip to content

Amazon Prime Now and other delivery services hit with delays as online shopping surges amid coronavirus outbreak

A worker prepares packages to be shipped inside of an Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville, New Jersey.

Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Same-day and next-day delivery services offered by the likes of Amazon, Instacart and Walmart are experiencing delays in some areas of the country as shoppers stock up on items in light of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Amazon Prime Now and Instacart shoppers say the normally speedy services have limited delivery availability or inform users that they won’t be able to place an order until the following day. Walmart’s next-day delivery service also appeared to have limited delivery availability. 

The delivery services appear to be overwhelmed by a recent surge in orders from shoppers who have turned to online retailers amid product shortages at physical stores. Services like Prime Now and the Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service promise shoppers convenience and speed without them having to leave their homes. Many of the services offer same-day or next-day delivery on grocery items in cities across the U.S. 

Shoppers are stocking up in-store and online as the coronavirus continues to spread. As of Wednesday, there were at least 95,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide, with at least 3,250 deaths. There are at least 138 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S., and at least 11 deaths. 

Prime Now delivery windows started to become scarce on the service as of a few days ago, two shoppers told CNBC. Other Prime Now customers reported similar issues on Twitter over the past week. 

Prime Now showed a notice warning shoppers of limited delivery availability in their area in markets including Seattle, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Orlando, Chicago, Miami and Boston, among other areas, CNBC found. The notices have been on Amazon’s Prime Now site and apps since at least Monday of this week.

Adam Gering, director of research at blockchain company Stably, said he hasn’t been able to place a Prime Now order in his hometown of Redmond, Washington for two days. A notice in the Prime Now app said there were “no delivery windows” available and instructed him to “try again tomorrow.” 

Several items appeared to be out of stock on Prime Now’s Redmond-area website, including Lysol disinfectant spray, Quilted Northern toilet paper and Wet Ones antibacterial hand wipes.

Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse, said he hoped to order hand sanitizer on Prime Now after it was sold out at a local store and was happy to find it in stock on the site. However, when he went to order the item, he discovered “at least half” of the time slots for Prime Now are “completely booked” for both today and tomorrow in New York City. 

“I guess I’ll have to go back to physical stores,” he said. 

Prime Now also appears to have placed quantity limits on some items. For example, when CNBC attempted to purchase a package of Cottonelle toilet paper, the Prime Now app restricted users from adding more than two units of the product to their order at one time. There were also quantity limits on Whole Foods 365 brand bottled water. Gering said he noticed similar restrictions on toilet paper. 

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the order restrictions for some items and whether or not it was tied to the coronavirus. When asked about Prime Now’s limited delivery availability, the spokesperson told CNBC in a statement: “We are experiencing an increase in demand for Prime Now and are working hard to increase delivery availability.”

Kaziukenas said Walmart’s next-day delivery service hasn’t been available for him in New York for the past week. A notice at the top of Walmart’s next-day delivery webpage showed that it was “currently unavailable.” 

Representatives from Walmart didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

CNBC ran a search for items on Instacart and was shown a notice that stated: “Due to high demand, some stores are running low on certain items (such as hand sanitizer). We’ll try our best to complete your order and offer the best replacements possible.” Additionally, an Instacart order for items from Costco showed that there were no delivery options available until Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at noon. 

Instacart told CNBC the company has seen high demand in recent days, but that the service remains fully operational in North America. Customers are shown delivery windows based on availability in their area and depending on supply and demand, those windows will adjust. 

Demand for Instacart services has surged 10x in the past 72 hours, while the growth rate has surged 20x in California, Washington, Oregon and New York, Instacart said. 

Flex drivers told to take extra precautions 

The surge in online orders has meant delivery drivers are being kept busy. It has also raised questions about what steps companies are taking to make sure delivery workers are staying safe amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Amazon has increasingly relied on its network of delivery service partners (DSP) and Flex drivers to complete last-mile deliveries. Both Flex drivers and DSPs are contract workers who use their own vehicles to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps. As contractors, they’re also responsible for their own medical care. 

With the coronavirus continuing to spread in the U.S., Amazon has alerted Flex drivers to take extra precautions when they’re on the job.

The company sent out a notice to Flex drivers on March 3 advising drivers to stay home if they have a fever, wash their hands frequently, use tissues to cover a cough or sneeze and refrain from handshakes. The notice, which was obtained by CNBC, also urges Flex drivers to contact Amazon if they have had “close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.” 

Representatives from Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment about notices sent to Flex drivers.

CNBC also viewed emails from DoorDash, Uber and Lyft that told delivery workers and drivers they were monitoring the spread of the coronavirus and were urging workers to take the appropriate preventative measures.