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Coronavirus supermarkets latest: Sainsbury’s trials virtual queuing system

The latest on grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic, from online deliveries to opening hours

Coronavirus supermarkets latest: Sainsbury’s trials virtual queuing system

Since the start of the pandemic, supermarkets have been changing their operations in an effort to help ‘feed the nation’ during the coronavirus crisis.

They might have felt strange at first, but floor markings and checkout screens have now become as integral to supermarkets as sliding doors and staff announcements.

As lockdown restrictions have been eased, supermarkets have continued to evolve.

Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are trialling virtual queuing system that let customers wait in the car rather than standing in line, and Tesco has ended its one-way aisle system despite some backlash from shoppers who preferred it.

And, of course, face coverings are now compulsory in all shops in England and Scotland, including supermarkets.

On the online front, Morrisons has deepened its partnership with Amazon, with the supermarket’s entire range now appearing on the online retail giant’s website for same-day delivery to many customers.

And Ocado is once again open to new customers, after restricting itself to regular users throughout lockdown.

Which? explains everything you need to know about grocery shopping during the coronavirus crisis, including how each supermarket is adapting, and special opening hours for NHS workers and elderly/vulnerable shoppers.

You can scroll down to read the whole story or use the links to skip to particular sections:

To find out what COVID-19 means for your rights, travel, health and lifestyle, check out the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.

Will supermarkets change now that lockdown is over?

Much of the UK’s hospitality sector reopened in July, meaning going to the supermarket is no longer one of the only reasons you can leave your home.

So far, this hasn’t led to major changes in supermarkets, but some small shifts are beginning to take place.

M&S, Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose have reopened some in-store cafés, both for eat-in and takeaway dining, after they had been closed throughout lockdown.

Baguette lovers can celebrate as Lidl has reintroduced loose bakery items.

We’re still seeing new innovations, such as Sainsbury’s virtual queuing app, which is being trialled in certain stores, and Asda is testing a rapid trolley-cleaning machine.

Tesco has adapted its social distancing measures, ditching its one-way aisle system and allowing more customers into some stores. The supermarket has also lifted its 80-item limit for online orders.

In some cases, things are showing signs of getting ‘back to normal’. Sainsbury’s, for example, started delivering all shopping in plastic bags during lockdown to speed up deliveries – but the supermarket has confirmed that it will revert to bagless deliveries from 30 August.

The government has allowed ‘one metre plus’ social distancing in England since 4 July, but so far no supermarkets have announced a change to their current two-metre rules.

Iceland is reportedly removing some of its two-metre signage, according to The Grocer, although the frozen food specialist said it was making no changes to its policies.

Aldi confirmed to Which? that it has ‘no plans’ to change any of its social distancing measures. Tesco said it’s reviewing the government’s new guidance, but won’t be making the switch for now. Waitrose said it still recommends two-metre social distancing where possible.

Special opening hours by supermarket

We’re updating this alphabetised list of supermarket special slots for NHS workers and vulnerable shoppers every time we learn something new.

It’s worth noting that Asda and Sainsbury’s have made changes to their priority hours, and Iceland has removed them.

Some stores are running things slightly differently on a localised basis – this list only covers nationwide policies, so check with your local store if you want to be sure.

Links take you to the Which? review of each supermarket.

Supermarket Key workers Elderly/vulnerable shoppers
Aldi NHS and emergency workers get priority in queues and also 30 minutes’ early access before tills open on Sundays Mon-Sat: access 30 minutes before store opens
Asda NHS workers get priority queuing on
Mon, Wed, Fri from 8am-9am; priority entry for browsing 9am-10am on Sun
Co-op ‘Prioritised’ Mon-Sat 8am-9am; Sun 10am-11am ‘Prioritised’ Mon-Sat 8am-9am; Sun 10am-11am
Iceland No longer offering priority hours No longer offering priority hours
Lidl No priority hours No priority hours
Marks & Spencer First hour of trading on Tue and Fri First hour of trading on Mon and Thu
Morrisons Mon-Sat 6am-7am; Sun 9am-9.30am
Sainsbury’s Priority entry Mon-Sat 7.30am-8am Priority entry Mon, Wed, Fri 8am-9am
Tesco Tue and Thu 9am-10am; browsing hour before checkouts open on Sun; NHS and emergency services staff allowed to go to front of queue at all times Mon, Wed, Fri 9am-10am
Waitrose NHS and social care workers have priority access during normal opening hours after first hour of opening First hour of opening on Mon, Wed and Fri

Fewer product shortages as the ‘new normal’ sets in

Shoppers are finding it much easier to get everything they want than at the start of the pandemic, with only a few items still proving tricky to buy.

As a result, the majority of supermarkets have now loosened restrictions or lifted them altogether.

At the height of the panic-buying spate at the end of March, 76% of people told us that they had experienced product shortages when shopping. This had fallen to 25% when we re-ran the survey from 5 to 9 June.

Our June survey also found that only 2% struggled to find pasta and rice, falling from 18% at the start of April. And just 1% couldn’t find toilet paper, down from 28% in March.

The products people were still having the most trouble finding were flour (which 12% couldn’t find) and hand sanitiser (9%). To help ease the flour shortage, many supermarkets have started selling flour from their own bakeries.

With shortages becoming less of an issue on the whole, most supermarkets have removed item limits on all, or almost all, products.

How are supermarkets enabling social distancing?

Supermarkets have introduced a wide range of social distancing measures and high-tech innovations to try to make shopping safer.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimates that supermarkets spent more than £100m on new safety measures throughout lockdown, including PPE and screens.

Many offer apps or handheld devices that enable you to scan your own shopping and avoid using the checkout, and every major supermarket has installed checkout screens, floor markings and enhanced cleaning measures.

It’s now perfectly normal to see people queuing to get into shops as retailers limit customer numbers to help people stay two metres apart from each other. And as social distancing looks set to be required for some time to come, supermarkets are working to make the process safer and more efficient.

The most recent development, in England and Scotland at least, is the requirement to wear masks or face coverings. While many supermarkets have said they won’t challenge people who aren’t wearing them, as they could have a valid reason not for doing so, all are encouraging shoppers to follow the government guidance.

Sainsbury’s is trialling its uFirst app, which allows shoppers to virtually queue before they enter stores. You could be sitting in your car, in a café or at home while you wait to enter. Waitrose is piloting a similar scheme in six stores.

Asda is also introducing a virtual queuing system, while Aldi has installed traffic lights at stores to make it clear whether the next person in line can enter or not.

And throughout the UK, the contactless payment limit has been raised from £30 to £45, so more people can pay without having to touch the chip and Pin machine.

High demand for delivery slots

Despite the peak of demand having passed in many areas, online delivery slots can still be hard to come by. When we surveyed shoppers from 5 to 9 June, one in six were unable to get a delivery slot.

Retailers are trying to give priority to elderly and vulnerable customers for online delivery, and most have asked customers to shop in store if they’re able to.

Current online shopping situation by supermarket (alphabetical list)

Amazon is yet to truly dent the grocery market, but it has overhauled its Amazon Fresh food delivery service in an attempt to expand and the entire Morrisons range is now available on Amazon.

Amazon Prime members can now get next or even same-day grocery delivery at no extra cost. It used to cost an additional monthly fee on top of Prime’s £7.99.

The service is only available in London and southern England.

Aldi doesn’t offer a full online grocery shopping service, but it has launched a £23.99 essentials box for vulnerable and elderly people that can be ordered online for delivery in three to 10 days.

You may also be able to order same-day deliveries of certain items from your local Aldi via Deliveroo for a £4.99 delivery fee, although The Sun has reported that some items may cost more than what you would pay in store.

A limited number of Aldi stores are currently on Deliveroo, with others being added regularly.

Asda says those who are self-isolating or have additional needs should fill out the ‘other information’ section when placing their orders to tell delivery drivers where they would like their groceries to be left.

Its delivery capacity has increased from 450,000 to 725,000 slots a week.

In Birmingham and Leeds, the supermarket is trialling a 30-minute delivery service for its own-brand products with Uber Eats.

Booths, which operates in the north of England, is delivering emergency food packs to vulnerable customers living within three miles of its stores.

It has also launched a click-and-collect service for those wishing to avoid shopping in store. You can make your order online, but payment will be taken over the phone.

Co-op online deliveries are available the same day in some areas. You can order a maximum of 25 items from a curated selection of products.

The convenience store chain does warn that demand for slots is high, but if you can’t get one you may also be able to order from your local Co-op via Deliveroo.

Co-op has also expanded its same-day robot delivery service, which sees emissions-free robots bringing goods to shoppers’ doors. It’s now available from eight stores in the Milton Keynes area.

Iceland has increased its online delivery capacity by 250% by bringing more than 100 of its larger ‘Food Warehouse’ stores online. These outlets are typically two or three times larger than standard Iceland stores and stock a wider range of goods.

M&S has teamed up with BP fuel stations and Deliveroo to offer an ‘Essentials by Deliveroo’ service. Similar to Aldi’s, this service is only available for selected products from certain M&S stores and more than 100 BP stations.

M&S also offers a range of essential boxes that you can order directly, costing from £15 to £40 depending on the contents.

Morrisons has turned off its app and has warned customers that they must make final edits to their online shopping basket no less than 72 hours before their delivery slot, or they could risk losing their order altogether.

If you’re unable to get a Morrisons delivery slot through the website, check Deliveroo to see whether your area is covered for an essentials delivery – which could bring a limited selection of Morrisons groceries to your door within as little as 30 minutes of placing the order.

Or, if you’re a city-dwelling Amazon Prime customer, you might be able to benefit from a same-day Morrisons delivery. This service – originally available from 17 stores when it launched in March – is expanding to cover 40 stores across the UK’s 10 biggest cities by population, including Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London. Many stores have already launched the offering.

Ocado is once again open to new customers, so you can now place an order if you’ve never shopped with it before.

Early on in the pandemic, the online-only brand made the decision to only serve existing customers, after demand for orders challenged its capacity.

Sainsbury’s is offering priority delivery slots to elderly and vulnerable customers identified by the government shielding list.

The supermarket says it has increased its capacity to 650,000 slots per week across home delivery as well as click and collect.

It’s also rolling out its e-bike delivery service, called Chop Chop, to 50 stores across the UK, bringing it outside London for the first time. It’s now active in 20 cities.

Tesco has expanded its weekly delivery capacity to 1.3m slots, an increase of 400,000 from before lockdown.

Waitrose has brought forward its cut-off time for online order changes to 12 noon the day before your delivery is due, to help meet the high demand. It has increased online orders to 150,000 a week – more than double the number at the start of the year – and has pledged to give a quarter of these slots to vulnerable customers.

The supermarket is trebling its Rapid Delivery service to offer 7,000 deliveries a week, which provides same-day delivery for up to 25 grocery items. This is only available from 28 stores in Hove and London, and 40% of slots are reserved for elderly and vulnerable shoppers.

Vulnerable people still struggling to get food delivered

When we surveyed 1,789 people between 29 May and 17 June about their experiences over the previous seven days, we found some worrying statistics:

  • 29% of extremely vulnerable people had faced difficulties getting groceries
  • 74% of vulnerable people found it more difficult to get essentials than they did before lockdown
  • 14% of people who had been told to shield had no choice but to visit shops themselves to buy groceries
  • 40% of people who need support but who are not shielding (people who are blind or agoraphobic, for example) struggled to get food in the week before they were surveyed.

These findings are backed up by the personal stories we’ve heard from our social media followers, including extremely vulnerable people who have had to go out to buy food because they’ve been unable to book a delivery from any supermarket and don’t have anyone else who can help.

As shielding has now been relaxed in England, Which? is calling on the government to take urgent action to help resolve the situation.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?, said: ‘It’s still a  concern that our research has shown that food provision hasn’t worked well for so many of those who need it the most.

‘Some vulnerable people could now be looking at a cliff edge as shielding restrictions are lifted and they are left to fend for themselves, cut off from outside help in getting essential groceries.

‘Which? is now calling for the UK’s four governments to work with the food industry, local authorities and charities to ensure that a long-term plan for supporting all of those who are at risk is in place, so that no vulnerable person faces difficulties in accessing the basic food supplies they need.’

You can find out more in the following stories:

Which stores sell essential food boxes?

A number of supermarkets have started selling boxes packed with pre-selected ‘essential’ items such as bread, milk and pasta to help those who are self-isolating and unable to get a regular online delivery slot.

Links take you to the relevant page on the supermarkets’ websites.

  • Aldi £23.99, including delivery, for 22 items.
  • Asda £30, including delivery, for a box typically containing 31 items.
  • Marks & Spencer £15 to £40 for a range of boxes from basic veg to a selection of ready meals or meat.
  • Morrisons £22 to £55 for a range of boxes from fruit and veg to a luxury meat selection.

Alternatives to supermarkets

If you’re struggling to secure an online delivery slot and don’t want to queue at your local supermarket, it’s worth exploring whether there are alternatives in your area.

Many local independent shops, farm shops, community shops and wholesalers are innovating and expanding their services, with some launching delivery services for locals.

If you’re unsure where to start, there are a number of websites you can search including localfooddrops.co.uk and wedeliverlocal.co.uk.

Shopping habits changing

Until recently, online supermarkets had a market share of around 7% to 8%, but the coronavirus lockdown has meant demand for this form of grocery shopping has skyrocketed. According to Kantar, online now accounts for around 13.5% of all grocery sales.

Waitrose research found that more than three quarters of people regularly order household goods online, up from 61% last year.

And market research agency Mintel found that 37% of over-65s have increased the amount of online shopping they do since the outbreak started.

While supermarkets have struggled to build their online customer base in recent years, Mintel says that many people who have been forced to start shopping online due to coronavirus may well continue to do so once the pandemic is over.

Sainsbury’s chief executive recently revealed that online orders now account for 17% of the supermarket’s business – up from 7% pre-pandemic. Ocado’s chief executive said ‘the world as we know it has changed’ for retailers and that shoppers will not be ‘going back’ after switching to online.

A quarter of shoppers are expected to stick permanently with online shopping, according to Retail Gazette.

And it’s not just online that has been affected. In a Which? survey conducted between 24 and 28 April, 36% of respondents said they had shopped at independent and convenience stores more than usual since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, with 35% saying they had shopped in supermarkets less than usual.

In April and May, people made fewer trips to the supermarket than they did in the same months last year, but spent, on average, nearly 50% more each time, according to Kantar.

However, recent Kantar data found that customers are slowly starting to spend less money per trip than they did just before lockdown.

Community groups offer help

If you’re still not comfortable going out to buy groceries, or if you’re in an area under local lockdown, you might be able to get help from a community group.

According to Mintel, 24% of people aged under 44 have been helping friends, family or neighbours with their shopping.

In many areas, residents have set up Facebook or WhatsApp groups to offer help to people who are vulnerable or running low on essentials – try searching for your local Mutual Aid group if you need help or want to get involved.

Some people have grouped together to place online orders, or added a few items for a neighbour, to save taking up extra delivery slots.

The neighbourhood hub Nextdoor is being used in a similar way, too, with users reaching out to offer help with shopping or even supporting those in self-isolation.

Which? advice on coronavirus

Experts from across Which? have advice on everything from staying safe and keeping in touch with loved ones to travel insurance rights and saving money on your household bills.

Click to see all the latest coronavirus advice and news from Which?.

This story was originally published on 9 March and is being regularly updated with the latest developments. Additional reporting by Hannah Walsh.

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