Saturday, February 2, 2019

My First Experience with Instacart: Is It (And Other Grocery Delivery Services) Worth It?

Is this piece-of-shit service worth your time and money?

I’ve always avoided the whole idea of grocery delivery, even though it seems to be gaining traction—every supermarket these days offers some sort of delivery program—mainly because it just sounded so expensive. You’re either roped into an annual “contract” through a yearly subscription cost (usually around $99), or you pay a higher monthly charge, on top of higher prices on many items, service charges, tips to the driver, and a delivery charge (if no monthly fee, or if your order is under a certain threshold). I mean, I get that it’s all about convenience and not about savings, but depending on what you buy, that can take up a rather large percentage of the original grocery costs. At what point is the trade-off for convenience just not worth it?

A clean, enticing ad for Instacart delivery, from Aldi.

And yet, I found myself actually contemplating using the service when we were almost out of diapers one cold, wintry evening. Neither of us really felt like leaving the warm comfort of home just to grab some, and to complicate matters, I had to work first thing in the morning, which meant in order for my wife to grab some herself the next morning, she would have to pack baby up and take him with her. I think even those without kids can accurately imagine the hassle of having to bundle up and strap a toddler into a car just to run down the street to grab a couple of things—it ain’t worth it. So when I saw Aldi had finally spread its Instacart delivery service to Ohio (and 5,000 additional zip codes nationwide), I thought this would be a perfect time to see what the service was all about.

And what I learned is that there are a LOT of variables at play that are going to affect your overall experience.

The “push” to actually use Instacart came from a promo code (ALDILOVE if you want to try it out for yourself; no idea if/when it expires), which gives users $10 off of their first THREE orders from Aldi, with free delivery added on the first one. I figured that wasn’t a bad deal—at the very least that money would help offset some of the markups and additional charges, and so I began the process to find enough items to meet the $35 minimum order requirement.

Browsing for stuff is pretty simple; there is also a search bar for quick location of specific items.

Finding items in the program is pretty easy, thanks to the search bar at the top of the screen. Know what you’re looking for? Type it in, and marvel as all pertinent results pop up, while adding the items to your cart is as easy as one (maybe two) mouse clicks. If you don’t have a specific item in mind and need to browse, say, laundry stuff, all the departments are grouped together, so you can easily browse all items offered within a specific category. Note that this information pertains to the website only—they do have an app for those on the go, but since I was just testing the service out, I did not download it.

One thing I am wondering is just how accurate Aldi’s inventory counts are, considering their “special buy” business model. When we used their service, it was late November, and I did notice some holiday candies that popped up—clearly part of their seasonal inventory—but I didn’t see if they were a part of that week's ad, or a previous week. I would imagine it would be kind of hard for the inventory to keep track of their Special Buy items, since they are added weekly and not replenished once sold out, and can’t seem to find a specific answer on it. If anyone has any more knowledge on this topic, I’d be glad to hear it in the comments!

I knew through extensive previous research that there were markups on certain items, but I was shocked to discover that there were also many that had no such markup. I sadly know far too many prices at Aldi, so picking out the ones that had a few extra coins attached was pretty easy for me; I’m sure it’s a lot harder to spot if you’re ordering from a more traditional supermarket, where prices tend to fluctuate more. The most glaring markup came from something we desperately needed: milk. I haven’t seen it cost more than $2 at Aldi in over a year, yet it was $2.69 in Instacart. Since we were also going to run out of that by morning, I had to pull the trigger with disgust—from what I could tell, though, the other items that had additional markups seemed to be around $.20 to $.30 each. 


Once I hit the threshold and was satisfied with my order, I was taken to a “substitution screen”: Based on specific counts in that store’s inventory, it lets you know which items could possibly be sold out or hard-to-find, and lets you auto-approve certain substitutions, preventing your shopper from having to contact you during the trip. By default, similar items are recommended, but you can either add your own substitution, or skip it if you just want to be contacted in the event of an outage. It's a nice feature, considering you already will be getting a dozen messages from your shopper, so any you can eliminate is one less annoyance to deal with. From there, I placed my order, and scheduled it to be delivered the following morning between 10-11 a.m., the earliest window for delivery. 

Breakdown of costs for a quick order, not including delivery. Note that it's already $5 more...

The following morning, the day of the scheduled delivery, we ran into problems right out of the gates: We received a message from Instacart that the shopper would be running late, and instead of the window we had chosen (10-11 am), it was going to be delivered between 11:15-11:45 instead. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a big deal—after all, we’re looking at a minimum that’s just 15 minutes longer than originally anticipated—but considering my wife used our last diaper earlier that morning, time was of the essence. In fact, we were hoping it would be delivered closer to the beginning part of the window (10 am) rather than later, making it more than just a slight annoyance. On one hand, yes, it was our fault for losing track of our supplies; on the other, isn't this a system that's based entirely around convenience?

Later on, my wife received the first of a million messages from Instacart/the shopper: We had put cinnamon French toast sticks in our order, and I had auto-approved regular ones if they were out. Apparently, they were also out of our backup option, because the shopper contacted her to ask if a substitution for blueberry pancakes and sausage on a stick would be okay. That’s a rather odd suggestion, but I guess she felt our hearts were set on some sort of frozen breakfast food. But by the time my wife logged in and went to respond not five minutes after receiving the request, we were informed that it was too late to review the substitution, because the shopper was already checking out. Okay, so apparently you can’t do anything while waiting for your order because you have to drop what you’re doing and respond immediately to any and all questions…wait, where’s the convenience again?

Also, the shopper went ahead and substituted the pancakes on a stick…which was $3 more than our original requested item. And all within five minutes of the initial request. I mean, we ate them, but what if it was something that we didn’t like, or even worse, were allergic to? I’d almost rather she just left it off entirely, but then I suppose people would get upset with that, so its one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kinda things from the shoppers’ perspective.

The delivery finally came around 11:30, a half-hour later than the tail end of our originally requested hour-long window. Since I was still at work, my wife said the lady who delivered it was really nice, but there was an odd mixup concerning the grocery bags. The shopper brought them in the large, reusable Aldi totes, mentioning something about them being out of regular bags (?), and then hovered around after handing the groceries over, as if waiting to get her bags back. My wife, taking care of a baby and whining dog, and hating the idea of being rushed to empty groceries, made it pretty clear that wasn’t going to happen, at which point the lady kindly said she could just get more, and left. I know the shopper didn’t mean anything by it, and handled the situation well enough to prevent it from escalating, but forcing someone to unload groceries while you wait so you can keep the same bags seems a little…dumb? Rude? Awkward? If there isn't a way for Instacart to add the cost of normal bags into the order total (and Lord knows their system allows the addition of many types of fees already), then that's something they should really look at implementing.

So, would we use the service again? After all, we do get two additional $10 discounts (off a $35 minimum purchase) which, in theory, can work out to some pretty decent savings. However, after using it, I physically hate the service even more than I initially hated the thought of it, which is a lot. Sure, it’s a great service for rich people, who have loads of expendable income, but for the average Joe, I don’t feel like the tradeoff is even close to worth it. I won't say I'd “never” use it again, simply because kids, and—well, life in general—can be pretty unpredictable, and you never know when you'll run into a situation where it could come in handy, but I can say I'd certainly never, ever use it to replace a normal shopping trip.

On top of the additional markup on random items--which Instacart estimates to be somewhere around 15%, but which online users have found to be closer to 25%, or even more (depending on the items in the order, and store location), there is also a service fee of an additional 5% (which, for our $45 order, was a little under $2.50; this is basically a donation to the service, as none of it goes to your driver) , a recommended tip of 5% (which all goes to the driver and can be adjusted accordingly in either direction; we kept it at default which basically doubles the service charge) and, while our deal offered us free delivery, there would also normally be another $3.99 minimum charge for delivery. And keep in mind that, while the other fees are shown as you check out, the markup costs on individual items are never specifically revealed. In this case, we probably paid around $10 extra in markups (by saving $10 on groceries and receiving free delivery), but adding in the delivery charge would have put us around $15, or 33% of the original tab. Oh, and it gets even better: They charge a higher delivery fee for delivery during peak times, so your charge could double and go up to $7.99 if you order, say, New Year's week.

Delivery costs during peak times double.

Yet, somehow, even with all those fees, the company still can’t afford to pay its workers all that much, with average pay-per-hour reportedly hovering around the $15/hr mark (of course, the website touts that shoppers can make upwards of $25 an hour, though by virtually all actual accounts, maintaining that mark is virtually impossible). That’s not a terrible wage in and of itself, but considering the beating you’re putting on your own car, most of that money will probably just end up going to fixing it when it dies. Oh, and there are no additional benefits for its shoppers: No gas discounts, no medical care options, no 401k, no nothing.

Really, these delivery companies all seem to be knee-jerk reactions to taking advantage of a fad before it dies down. Now, I don't think grocery delivery itself is a fad—a growing number of people are either lazy, or legitimately busy, and eliminating a trip to the market can potentially free up an hour or two of free time—but the current business models of said services just don't seem to be very sustainable. Once the grocery stores themselves start offering delivery, complete with their own associates in their own branded vehicles, then we might be looking at a service worth using. Until then, these services all just feel like pop-up cash grabs, targeting the rich and those that value the convenience, without taking the time to research the downsides. Hell, Instacart has even received substantial press for hiding additional fees in the past, an issue that they've supposedly resolved. But if we've learned anything from business culture, that just means they've learned to hide them a little bit better.

I'm not naive enough to think what's best for me is what's best for everyone: there are no doubt many scenarios where Instacart can be a legitimate time/life-saver. But for the average Joe who just hates going to the grocery store and is living paycheck to paycheck--you're better of dragging your ass off the couch and going yourself. 

4 comments:

  1. Grocery delivery isn't a new concept in some parts of the world. For instance, it's extremely popular in China and in major metropolitan cities like New York and L.A.

    Personally I always wondered just how busy one had to be to not be able to take an hour out of their day to actually go grocery shopping? If you don't have time to shop, do you have the time to prepare the food that you ordered?

    I don't really have a problem with the delivery aspect, but I wonder how this business model works when you order meat and produce? I'd be furious if I received rotten veggies or extremely fatty meat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And that's exactly one of the myriad of problems that comes with the service. No one picks veggies or meats out exactly like you do, so if you order those, you're literally at the mercy of whoever your shopper is.

      Besides, you pretty much have to take the time to order all the stuff yourself anyway. Granted, it probably won't take as long to select the items in the instacart app (or website) as it would to physically go to the store, but it took me about 15 minutes just to get a handful of items to test the system out. In that time I could have been to the store and at least a quarter of the way through my own shopping.

      I can see it as a great tool for those with disabilities, or the elderly, but for the lazy, it's just a waste of money.


      Delete
    2. Mike, I use Instacart regularly. On one Aldi order, I received four containers of rotten organic berries. The shopper obviously didn't look on the bottom of the containers, or just didn't care. I contacted Instacart through the app, and they refunded the cost of all of those items. I offered to send a picture as proof, but they said it was unnecessary.

      Delete
    3. @Anonymous That's good to know. I was wondering how their support would be should an issue arise.

      Delete