As the COVID-19 outbreak continues, many people are following the government’s instructions and staying home as much as possible. Cooking at home has become the norm. However, it is not convenient to buy ingredients at traditional markets, and online shopping has become the safest and most feasible shopping option.
Many people enjoy shopping online, but during the pandemic, it has become a nightmare for families. Web sites are often congested, making it difficult to access them. If you do get in, you often cannot find the ingredients you want; if you find them, they are expensive; if you hesitate the slightest, they are sold out; and if you manage to buy what you want, the delivery date is uncertain, forcing you to wait for several days.
While it is important to be ahead of the curve in terms of disease prevention, the measures taken by the authorities should not only focus on preventing the spread of the virus and treating the sick, but also on helping people with livelihood issues that arise from staying home to contribute to public health.
When local COVID-19 cases surged, there was little change in the production and supply of foodstuffs compared with before the outbreak. In terms of demand, the population remained the same and there was no increase in consumption.
This makes one wonder why online shopping sites are congested, why people rush to buy ingredients, why prices go up and why deliveries are delayed. These issues must be due to bottlenecks in the online shopping supply chain, insufficient capacity or inefficiency.
Let us look at these issues one by one.
Most of the large Web sites that sell fresh ingredients recently ran out of stock or extended delivery times, while small online businesses are so fragmented that it is difficult for them to meet demand for one-stop shopping. In addition, many of these Web sites have insufficient server capacity to withstand the large number of people shopping simultaneously, causing congestion and making shopping difficult. These issues could be solved if server capacity, hardware and software were upgraded.
As for the supply of ingredients, helping manufacturers connect with distributors and getting timely access to sufficient supplies should not be a problem.
Then there are issues of storage space, facilities for handling inbound and outbound goods, refrigeration equipment, staff, and so on.
Expanding these capacities is not as complicated as setting up additional high-tech production lines and should not be difficult to implement in the short term.
As for the quantity and speed of distribution, that depends on logistics capacity. In normal times, it is easy for online businesses to adjust schedules, but it is difficult for them to respond amid the outbreak because there are too many urgent orders.
Many businesses selling groceries online have increased prices as they continue to operate without increasing capacity. Those businesses might not record losses, despite stagnant sales.
However, this makes it difficult for the public to shop online. If people instead go back to shopping at traditional markets, it might lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections, running counter to the government’s disease prevention goals.
The authorities should provide assistance to improve the capacity of these links, including upgrading the hardware and software of e-commerce Web sites, and enhance connections to the food supply chain, as well as expanding storage facilities, goods handling, and refrigeration equipment.
In terms of logistics, it is possible to help manufacturers increase the number of vehicles and staff. Another possibility is to use busses — which are currently underused as passenger numbers have dropped — to transport groceries, helping online food sellers carry large quantities of goods to bus stops near buyers’ homes, and then have them delivered by accompanying staff. This would be one way of solving the logistics issue.
Using government resources to help online grocery businesses improve their supply chains and solve livelihood issues for the public should be important parts of disease prevention.
The authorities should provide the necessary funding, staff, equipment and technical support, as well as help businesses with the planning, coordination, integration and execution of food deliveries.
Improving the online shopping supply chain and reducing the risks inherent in going out to shop for food should help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and slow the increase of prices at online grocery outlets.
Huang Kuei-jung is an adjunct professor at Tamkang University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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