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Welcome to crazy town: AKA grocery delivery

Waiting lists. Cheating. Insider tips. Grocery delivery has turned as intense as college admissions.

Ally Rzesa/Globe Staff

Grocery delivery has gone mad.

People are setting alarms for the wee hours based on rumors that slots are released after midnight. They are jumping at five-day windows, when even five hours used to be unacceptable. Horribly, they are reportedly luring Instacart gig workers with big tips and then changing the tip to $0 once the job is done.

With health officials warning Americans to stay away from grocery stores, and Massachusetts bracing for a COVID-19 surge, scoring a delivery or pickup slot is like winning the world’s most pathetic lottery.

“My greatest victories are now snagging grocery delivery windows for the few seconds they are available,” scientist @rossfederman tweeted on April 11.

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In olden times (February), grocery stores couldn’t convince people to shop online. How could someone else choose your frozen peas?

Now, demand is so high that Amazon has stopped accepting new grocery delivery customers and is asking aspiring eaters to sign up for a wait list. Instacart has said it’s hiring 300,000 new workers.

When future historians study the COVID-19 pandemic, tales of delivery quests will be primary source material.

“Instacart saga or farce continues,” Don Sullivan, a jaunty, 76-year-old disabled Vietnam war veteran from Winthrop, e-mailed a reporter.

At 5 p.m. on Easter Sunday, he was notified that a delivery that should have arrived a day earlier, at the latest, would in fact be made by 10 p.m. Not ideal, but who can be picky. But 30 minutes later a second notification arrived. After five days of waiting, his Stop & Shop order was being canceled.

“But, being the wonderful folks they are,” he wrote, Instacart had saved his grocery list so he could easily seek another delivery time. He tried to grab one, he said, but, spoiler alert: No delivery times were available.

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(The company later gave him a $10 credit toward his next order, should it ever arrive.)

Sullivan knows that volunteers would happily shop for him and his wife, both of whom have health problems. “But we’re not house-ridden,” he said. “We don’t want to divert resources from someone who needs it.”

The couple’s daughter lives in Philadelphia, and he won’t ask a local niece or nephew to brave a supermarket. “If they ever got sick, or God forbid died . . .” he said. “I’ve got enough guilt from Vietnam. I don’t need a refresher course.”

Delivery drama is playing out on apps, where people spend entire days hitting “refresh” in hopes of scoring a slot, and online, where the desperate are turning to strangers for advice.

On Nextdoor, the social networking platform, a user wrote that she’s “terrified” of going to the grocery store, but “I’ve checked all the services and there are no delivery slots available. . . . Are there any loopholes for the pregnant and/or immunocompromised? Thanks!”

“Text me,” a user from Fenway answered, “and i will give you a suggestion that worked for me.” (Alas, she did not return a reporter’s e-mail and text, so the suggestion remains unknown.)

With gig delivery and grocery store workers striking and protesting over a lack of health protection and hazard pay, many people who use delivery services — but certainly not all — feel conflicted.

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“We’ve shifted the burden of illness onto our low-income Black and Hispanic neighbors,” said Valéria Souza, 39, a City of Boston employee. “The shoppers are placing themselves at extreme risk.”

But with multiple sclerosis and asthma, she is under doctor’s orders to avoid public spaces, a precaution that means she can’t safely go to the grocery store and amplifies delivery anxiety.

Last week, when Souza was a few days into a delivery vigil, she was taking comfort from random people on Twitter. “Someone in Omaha, Nebraska, said it took five days, but they did get their order,” she said. “It was a relief.”

The stress is also raging on the other side of the order, where gig grocery delivery workers like Tara Forcellati, a single mom from East Boston, also fear infection but need to support their families.

The pandemic has made jobs that were already hard harder. “Almost every order is a full grocery shop — a week of groceries at a time,” Forcellati said. An order that used to take two hours to complete, from accepting a job to shopping and delivering it, now takes more than three.

Among the new challenges: Lines to get into the store, and empty shelves that mean more texting with customers about possible replacement items — time that cuts into a shopper’s hourly earnings.

“I was at a Market Basket and in the entire pasta section, the only thing available were elbows. But [the customer] wanted orecchiette. They just didn’t have it. We went back and forth four times. She was like, ‘What about this brand? Or this one?’ But it was bare bones. All they had were elbows.”

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Meanwhile, as would-be consumers get locked out of the traditional supermarket delivery and pickup services, they are seeking alternative sources: small farms, wholesalers, and restaurants that have started selling groceries.

In Brookline, a 60-something university employee who’d been unable to book Instacart was thrilled to learn about Misfits Market, a subscription box company that sells sometimes funny-looking produce.

She instantly went online to schedule delivery. But . . . “Due to high demand, we’ve temporarily paused first-time orders and have set up a waitlist to accept new subscribers as soon as we’re able," the site informed her.

A wait list for misshapen zucchini? Oh, for the days when Thanksgiving shopping was stressful.


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Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.