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Move over Instacart: 21-year-old entrepreneur jumps on delivery demand

After hearing complaints from friends that they had problems finding open slots to book grocery delivery services, Joe Chionchio, a 21-year-old Manhattan College finance major, created Smart LI, a new grocery delivery service.  Credit: Newsday / Daysi Calavia-Robertson

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Grocery delivery service backups got you down? A young Long Island entrepreneur is looking to provide an alternative.

Joe Chionchio, a 21-year-old Manhattan College finance major, launched his Smart Shop LI service a month ago, after hearing repeated complaints from friends who said thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, finding an open slot to book a grocery delivery service like Instacart, Shipt or Peapod had become practically impossible. 

In the last few weeks, public fear over contracting the coronavirus while at the supermarket has meant skyrocketing demand for these companies. Shoppers are encountering messages telling them no delivery service is currently available, or that they can't reserve a delivery time slot for 10 days or more. 

Instacart's order volume "has grown more than 150%," a spokeswoman said, as the company sees the highest customer demand in its history, with billions of dollars in groceries being sold on the platform. 

Chionchio was quick to capitalize on that demand.

Suddenly back at his parent's Bay Shore home and feeling down and out about the pandemic having derailed his senior year, he decided to channel his energy into the entrepreneurial pursuit. 

"I was separated from all my friends, my senior year baseball season canceled," he said. "When I learned most services were backed up for weeks, I realized there was something I could do. I could deliver groceries to people and have it at their doorsteps within hours." 

In less than a week, Chionchio's business had a name and a logo, and after one post on Instagram and another on Facebook, Smart Shop LI had its first customer. 

Since then, "business has been crazy, it picks up every single day ...  [in the last week] we've had about 25 to 30 deliveries," said Chionchio, who has hired five delivery drivers to help him keep up with demand. 

"Most customers are moms in their 30s and early 40s, but of course we've also had people in their 50s and some in their 20s … with the average shopping list at $150,"  he said.

Smart Shop LI customers are charged a 15% fee based on the total of their supermarket bill, and can pay using cash or for contactless delivery through online payment app Venmo. 

Benazeer Saifee, 45, an East Islip mom who first tried to order groceries from Instacart and Peapod with no luck, discovered Smart Shop LI on a Facebook group for Long Island moms. 

"Both of those services were backed up for at least two to three weeks," she said.

"As soon as I found out about Joe's company, I called right away. He immediately picked up and said he could deliver my groceries that same day which of course, I thought was wonderful, especially knowing my money was going to someone in the community."

Once at the store, Chionchio texted Saifee to let her know a product she ordered was out of stock and ask if she would like him to grab something else in its place. 

"It was very efficient," she said. "I was impressed." 

Carlos Espinal, 20, a University at Buffalo student, signed on as one of Smart Shop LI's drivers, going on his first run just a few days ago. 

"I put on my gloves, my mask, packed my hand sanitizer and went to work," said Espinal, adding that though his parents weren't thrilled about his new gig because of the risk, they still gave him their blessing before he stepped out the door.

"I just want to help them cover expenses like food and utilities, especially now, any way I can," he said.

Stefanie Haeffele, co-author of "Community Revival in the Wake of Disaster: Lessons in Local Entrepreneurship," a 2015 book about how entrepreneurs can rebound after natural disasters, said individuals who can quickly shift their skills and talents to fit the needs of their communities "in the thick of it" can position themselves for success. 

"Starting a business in the midst of a difficult time is a big risk. One key question to ask is ... Will the business be sustainable once the disaster is over?" she said. 

"For people like Chionchio, if he's able to build customer loyalty during this time, by being there for people when the big guy couldn't — I think the answer is yes." 

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