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From a villa of bees to a £7 onion: online deliveries take a strange turn

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Most online deliveries do not come with a health warning from the delivery driver but David Smith received one from a relieved courier who, on handing over Smith’s buzzing box, suggested the bees inside were “a bit angry”.

Rather than new clothes or groceries the 60-year-old Smith had turned to the web to buy a bumblebee colony and “villa” to house them. “I decided that my garden needed bees and the bees needed a home,” he says. “They have given me a summer of pleasure and I’ll do it again next year.”

From late night wine runs, takeaways and groceries to one-offs, such as buying bees, to stranded holidaymakers snapping up a car, Guardian readers have been losing their online shopping inhibitions during the coronavirus pandemic. It took eight years for online sales to double its share of retail spending to 20%, but within nine months that figure had touched 36% in 2020, although it has since settled at 26%.

What we buy is changing too, thanks to a new breed of on-demand grocery companies willing to ferry booze and forgotten groceries to the front door. For some, online shopping may still mean weekly groceries, but for others it is all about instant gratification at the tap of an app – and, on the whole, the difference is a matter of age.

One onion

The radio presenter Roman Kemp recently highlighted the generational divide on an episode of Celebrity Gogglebox. His father, Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp, was aghast at hearing his son paid £7 to have one onion delivered rather than pause mid-cook to go to the shop – and “it didn’t even come in a bag!”.

George, a 31-year-old civil servant from Reading, admits using Deliveroo to source a six-pack of Pepsi and some stamps from his local BP garage. “I wasn’t ill just lazy,” he says.

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The pandemic has given Deliveroo riders some weird consumer insights. Rebecca, a 22-year-old graduate who ferries meals and groceries around Edinburgh, recently delivered 16 cans of sardines and a pack of straws, and rode away wondering “what the customer was up to with that”.

David, another Edinburgh-based courier for Deliveroo, tells of single item orders such as cigarettes or bottle of vodka. Other notable ones include four hot chocolates and a late night shout for two bottles of wine and some lemonade.

With restaurants and pubs closed, the pandemic restrictions gave rise to a takeaway boom that has yet to run out of steam. Last week the food delivery group Just Eat said orders increased by 76% in the first six months of 2021. Deliveroo said its orders more than doubled, and its tie-up with the bakery Greggs has also proven to be a big hit.

At least 10 new grocery-on-demand companies, with relatively unfamiliar names such as Getir, Gorillas and Jiffy, are testing how much shoppers are willing to pay to avoid going to the shops themselves.

Gorillas, which says its service is “quicker than walking to the supermarket”, has a choice of 2,000 products and charges a £1.80 delivery fee. Eddie Lee, who runs its UK business, says the average spend is £20 to £25 for seven items. With deliveries made on bikes, orders are limited to a maximum total weight of 10kg as “beyond that we just don’t think that the riders are going to be comfortable”, he says.

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“We see orders where the customer clearly has already bought most of the groceries and just forgot that one can of tomatoes. So you see the tomatoes plus a bottle of red wine as a way to kind of make it, you know, justifiable.”

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But why do people not just go to one of the more than 40,000 UK convenience stores? “The biggest change I’ve seen is customers realising they don’t have to stock their cupboards or fridge full of food,” says Lee. “Once people get used to that idea they break that £120 food shop into three to four orders of £30-£40.”

A pregnancy test and a bottle of champagne

The phenomenon of single item orders are not lost on Gorillas riders. “I have seen people order a bottle of aloe vera (after sun) and in the order detail put ‘please don’t laugh at me because I fell asleep at the park’,” says Lee. Sometimes, the requests offer a fleeting glimpse into the most private moments. Lee gives another example, of a customer who ordered a pregnancy test and a bottle of champagne.

“We see a lot of alcohol orders in the evenings … Around 4:00-4.30pm, you see a big spike in bakery, meat and vegetables because people are picking up their kids from school and don’t have time to go to the grocery store.”

The restrictions, including high street lockdowns and the need for vulnerable people to shield, pushed households further online out of necessity. IMRG, an online retail association, said online sales in 2020 were 36% up on the previous year, when growth was 5% on 2018.

Coming up smelling of roses

Readers told the Guardian they had taken to the web to order industrial quantities of food stuffs that ranged from pickling onions, to curry powder and panko breadcrumbs. Others thought even bigger. Paul Brooking, from Chorley in Lancashire, twice bought a tonne of manure, suggesting it was proof “one can buy just about anything on the web”.

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Heather Storgaard, a charity worker based in South Queensferry, and her husband bought a car from their local dealer’s website while they were stranded overseas. The vehicle was delivered while they were quarantining after returning home and they unable to drive it.

Andy Mulcahy, IMRG’s strategy and insights director, says the conditions created by the pandemic accelerated pre-existing trends. “It is not like no one had ever bought a car online before,” he says, it is just the reasons for doing so increased.

Another influence on consumption is the problems the pandemic and Brexit have caused to the supply chain, with retailers’ stock levels falling to their lowest level since 1983. This is thought to be behind a big increase in average order spend, from ££80 a year ago to almost £140 now.

“People are buying things online because they are difficult to get hold of,” Mulcahy says, giving the example of garden furniture. “Things like garden benches or swing chairs, you just can’t get, so as when they come into stock people just buy them.”

“You are going to have seen some odd behaviours develop over the last 18 months because of the strangeness of the situation,” he adds.

This article was amended on 27 August 2021. Roman Kemp’s father is Martin, not Gary, Kemp.