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Numerous Blunders of Online Grocery Shopping Services Require Prompt Improvement Risks Associated with Delivery of Fresh and Frozen Food Not to Be Ignored

  • 2020.12.15

With the increasing popularity and prevalence of online grocery shopping, and the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are becoming more inclined to purchase daily essentials in the comfort and safety of their own home. The Consumer Council conducted the first ever survey on 5 online supermarkets to assess their quality of service and found varying standards of convenience in product search, delivery arrangements, as well as the condition of goods upon delivery. Blunders abound, such as split delivery of products in a single order without advanced notification; multiple last-minute changes in the delivery time, and even cancelling orders without notifying the customer, which brought a lot of inconvenience to consumers alternatively. There were also cases of missing items, order mix-up with other customers’ orders, or delayed delivery after order confirmation which concluded with the cancellation of the order. Not only does this defeat the purpose of online shopping, as customers expect convenience and speedy service, but it also causes additional nuisance and aggravation to customers in dealing with delivery issues. Furthermore, most trials saw frozen food delivered at a relatively high temperature as well as perished fresh food and fruit. Such risks to food safety should not be overlooked. To strengthen consumer rights, the Council urges merchants who operate online grocery supermarkets to promptly review their online shopping interface and flow, such as enhancing the usability of the websites, providing speedy and error-free delivery, improving customer service, and ensuring the quality of goods at the time of arrival.

The mystery survey was conducted by Council staff posing as general customers to test the service quality of 5 local online supermarkets. Their ease-of-use, delivery arrangements and the quality of goods upon receipt were compared. A total of 5 purchase trials were conducted for each supermarket, with each transaction comprising 15 identical or similar products all purchased without using the “keyword search” function during the session. The designated product categories included fresh, frozen and pre-packaged foods, and daily necessities.

Supermarket websites with a user-friendly interface and design can streamline the shopping process and saves time. The process from selecting to confirming 15 target items in 4 online supermarkets averaged 60 to 98 minutes, but 1 of them had a confusing product taxonomy. Take for an example, dining utensils were categorised as “beverage” (餐飲) but not white wine; home and kitchen appliances were found in “food” (食品); sliced ham and cheese sausages were not located in the “sausages and ham” (香腸火腿) section; whereas various types of fruit were scattered across the “Foodie Talk” (講飲講食) and “Others” (其他) subcategories, dragging out the time required for customers to locate the products they need. The remaining 1 recorded a large number of selected items were indicated as “sold out” at the checkout and delivery time selection stage, albeit being successfully added to cart, so the trialist had to spend extra time to select replacement items. In one particular trial, over half of the selected products (8 items) were displayed as sold out; upon selecting 8 replacement items, 6 of them were displayed as sold out again at the checkout stage. When the trialist reached out to the customer service hotline, the representative confirmed, on the contrary, that all the products were in stock but was unable to identify the reason for the system error. Follow-up action was promised by the customer service representative but failed to happen as the trialist received no further response. In summary, an average of 300 minutes were taken to complete a 15-item transaction with this said supermarket. However, if the above trial case was taken out of the equation, the average time dropped to 50 minutes.

Speedy delivery should be a reasonable ask. During the trial, only 1 supermarket was able to provide same-day delivery. Deliveries from the other 4 supermarkets took 1 to 26 days to complete, with some orders eventually not fulfilled. Also, 4 of the supermarkets were able to deliver all items in the order in a single shipment for almost all trials, while the remaining supermarket consistently took 3 to 4 split deliveries per transaction.

Punctual delivery is a basic requirement for online shopping services. But for 1 of the supermarkets, the 5 orders were split across 17 shipments, amongst which only 4 shipments (24%) were delivered within the promised time frame. The remaining 13 shipments (76%) were delivered as early as 5 days before the designated delivery date and as late as 16 days after, with some orders never fulfilled, greatly upsetting the plans of the trialist. Even when the delivery arrived within the promised slot, over half of them failed to contact the trialist in advance. As the delivery slot often spans 3 to 6 hours, it would help consumers make the necessary arrangements if they could be notified ahead of the delivery (for example 30 minutes in advance).

The Council advises customers to check whether the quality and quantity of products received match their order immediately upon receipt. Various slip-ups occurred for all 5 supermarkets’ delivery. In one instance, a parcel of fresh food for another customer was mistakenly delivered, believed to be an order mix-up. Although the merchant redelivered the correct items the following evening, the box had clearly been opened prior to the redelivery, and the grapes within were rotten and the frozen meat thawed. During another trial for the same supermarket, the trialist paid $65 for seedless red grapes (USA) but received the same product labelled $47.8, 26% lower than the paid amount. Delivered goods from other supermarkets also revealed various problems, such as broken eggs, dented canned foods, and ruptured box tissue packaging, etc.

It is of exceptional importance to keep frozen and perishable food at a constant and appropriate temperature during delivery. Out of the 25 trials, 24 deliveries (96%) saw frozen or perishable foods arriving at a temperature that was too high, including frozen “shao mai” dim sum at 20.8°C, frozen pork chops at 19.3°C, tofu at 18.6°C, and milk / yoghurt at over 16°C, in addition to molten sorbet and clearly thawed meat and dumplings, rotten grapes, and even black and leaking bananas. The Council urges traders to strictly follow the Food Hygiene Code published by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. All foods with potential health risks must always be stored at below 4°C or above 60°C during delivery; foods that need to be refrigerated must be delivered in refrigerated trucks and kept chilled to prevent bacterial growth or from perishing. Food safety must be closely heeded to safeguard the health of consumers.

Although none of the food items had expired at the time of receipt, some fresh food had an overly short shelf life. An order of tofu was found to expire on the day of receipt. Consumers ordering food items with a relatively short shelf life, such as tofu, soy milk and frozen meat, should pay attention to the best before date or expiry date once they receive the items, and consume the food in a timely manner. The Council advises consumers to notify traders in advance should there be no one at home to receive the delivery, in particular for frozen or perishable foods. To avoid risks of food safety, do not let the delivery worker deposit such items in places with no refrigeration, such as on the doorstep or at the building’s management office.

Online shopping has brought convenience, but consumers should be mindful of the environmental impact of over-packaging. As observed during the trials, merchants often used cooler bags along with several ice packs to keep frozen food chilled; multiple protective layers were used to protect eggs and other fragile goods. Other examples include using an individual box to hold a single item, using huge amounts of plastic bags, and creating packaging waste. The Council urges online shopping platforms and logistics companies to strike a balance between upholding food safety and environmental considerations, by refraining from over-packaging and select eco-friendly packaging materials. Recycling symbols should be printed on the packaging to avoid unnecessary waste of resources. On the other hand, consumers have the responsibilities to uplift their awareness and behaviour in sustainable consumptions, consider the impact and repercussions of packaging on the environment before purchasing online fresh or frozen food and daily necessities according to their needs.

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