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Grocery delivery service Shipt struggles to meet customer demand in Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay residents apparently love their Publix groceries and many want them delivered.

The new mobile app Shipt couldn't keep up with demand for Publix delivery service in the Tampa Bay area last weekend after its launch.

Thousands of residents signed up by downloading the Shipt app on their smartphones, said Shipt CEO Bill Smith. But the number of contracted employees — the "personal shoppers" Shipt hired to pick out groceries at Publix stores in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and deliver them to customers' homes — was not enough to meet demand, he said.

Shipt advertisements on Facebook and other websites say that customers can get groceries delivered to their homes within an hour. That is not the case in Tampa Bay just yet.

Over the weekend, Shipt's services were intermittently unavailable to customers who lived in St. Petersburg. When users logged on to the app, the estimated delivery time read "not available" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The same "not available" message halted delivery access in Tampa on Monday morning, too. On average, orders were delivered the day after ordering.

"This has definitely been our largest launch ever as far as demand," Smith said Monday, nearly a week after the Birmingham-based company launched in the Tampa Bay area. "What we've done in the market is hired nearly 100 additional shoppers to start shopping in the next day or two to meet the demand. We expect that by the end of the week, we'll have more shoppers than demand in the Tampa Bay area."

The St. Petersburg market has the highest demand of all the communities in Tampa Bay, Smith said.

Shipt customers order groceries, pay and ship via the company's app. Most Publix items are available for delivery. A $99 annual membership is required, or customers can pay a $14 monthly fee. Customers get free shipping on orders over $35. Shipping costs for deliveries less than $35 are usually $7 per order. Shipt also charges more for each item you buy to cover delivery costs.

Personal shoppers are hired on as contracted employees, similar to Uber and Lyft drivers, and make $15 to $20 for every order they deliver.

"This is why we call it a beta launch when we go into a new city," Smith said. "We tell our customers that and that we're working the kinks out. They get to be a part of something new and help us make it perfect."

Publix Supermarkets has made it clear that there is no formal partnership between the grocery chain and Shipt.

"There are many attempts in the market regarding online ordering and/or delivery. However, we have no partnerships with these services, so any use of the Publix name is without our consent," said Brian West, a spokesman for Publix. "Our customers, along with the products and services they receive from our stores, are always our first priority, so we apologize for any confusion this may have caused."

Shipt originally displayed photos on its website of shoppers standing in front of Publix stores. Those images have been removed.

CJ Hughes heard of Shipt when he was browsing threads on Reddit. The stay-at-home dad was looking for a flexible job that would get him out of the house for a few hours a day, but still be home enough to look after his 7-month-old daughter. His wife is wrapping up her bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida.

"I get to make my own hours and still work in a field close to what I want to be doing, which is the hospitality industry," Hughes said.

He was among "a couple hundred" Shipt personal shoppers that were hired for the launch of the service last week. During the first three days, Hughes delivered more than 25 orders, sometimes shopping for seven or eight families in a day.

The Tampa Bay Times followed Hughes during a trip to a Publix in St. Petersburg as he filled orders that would be charitable donations to families in need in Tampa Bay.

He has delivered to customers of all kinds. One man in a wheelchair thanked him with a cash tip. Another woman was grateful for his help, as it's hard for her to get out of the house while caring for a family member with Alzheimer's. But Hughes said that the majority of the customers he has met are stay-at-home mothers.

"Most people have two to three kids, and as a dad myself, I can't imagine what it's like to try to get them all in and out of a Publix to shop," Hughes said.

Using the Shipt app as a personal shopping list, Hughes checks off items as he bags them. He takes the time to find the best-looking peaches and tomatoes, and avoids any with blemishes or bruises. "I pick out produce as if I am picking it out for myself," Hughes said.

When a special request came up for organic frozen cherries on Friday, Hughes texted the shopper to let her know that the Publix at University Village in St. Petersburg didn't have them.

"Do you want a bag of regular frozen cherries instead?" he asked. (She texted back and said that was fine.)

"Sometimes, you're so busy that you have to make the call for them if they don't respond right away," Hughes said.

All Shipt shoppers are equipped with insulated bags and Hughes keeps a cooler in the back of his car. Shipt shoppers wear green T-shirts with the Shipt logo on them.

Publix baggers stopped him on his way out the door and asked how to sign up.

"A lot of Publix employees have asked how to sign up," Hughes said. "This is a perfect part-time job for someone who wants to make a little extra money."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

Grocery delivery service Shipt struggles to meet customer demand in Tampa Bay 08/10/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2015 7:41am]
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