The Possible Reason Your Grocery Delivery App Substituted The Wrong Items

Many news outlets are publishing an onslaught of articles bemoaning the state of the global supply chain. While the lack of electronics and car parts have been an ongoing source of consumer woes throughout the pandemic, Forbes reports, some other shortages may be surprising — tapioca, ketchup, cream cheese, tennis balls, and Girl Scout cookies, to name a few. With emptier-than-usual shelves, some grocery stores are struggling to ensure that customers leave happy, according to Chain Store Age, especially those who order delivery from home. 

While purveyors strive to fill online orders with the exact products that shoppers request, this year's grocery shortages can make that difficult. Ideally, these food retailers would substitute out-of-stock items with the same food by a different brand, or, at the very least, something very similar. However, according to The Wall Street Journal, some customers received bizarre product replacements — sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast rolls replaced strawberry shortcake ice cream; Halls lozenges replaced a rapid COVID-19 test; and someone's mysterious thought process led to a thermometer switch taking the place of mac 'n' cheese. How on earth do these seemingly random product substitutions occur? 

Computers and people can make strange product substitution decisions

Algorithms could be partly to blame for seemingly strange product substitutions. Retail giant Walmart claims it uses one that makes recommendations based on the customer's shopping history, according to Food & Wine. It may make sense to a computer to replace a set of silver, red, and gold Christmas baubles with a pack of brown pine cones, the Wall Street Journal reports. 

Humans face another dilemma — how can they select alternatives for someone who they know nothing about? If a shopper orders strawberry jam, but it's out of stock, a complete stranger could have difficulty choosing another flavor or product without knowing their preferences. Both algorithms and pickers can make errors when selecting substitutions. 

So, how can you best avoid receiving puzzling product stand-ins? Until retailers find a way to make the substitution selection process easier and more effective, shoppers are forced to deal with mistakes when they order groceries online. Whenever possible, it is best to choose a replacement item for something that might be out of stock. If this option isn't available, you could try to opt out of substitutions and avoid confusing replacements completely. And if you receive something that is unacceptable, be sure to request a refund. 

It is, after all, very difficult for a thermometer switch to replace a bowl of ooey-gooey macaroni and cheese.