In a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, author David Foster Wallace described the experience of grocery shopping at the end of a long day in the bleakest way possible. The store is crowded, “hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak,” and the last place shoppers want to be.
Although they sell us the stuff we need to survive and thrive, few of us actually like to go to supermarkets. If you’ve ever found yourself pushing a slightly broken cart at the end of a tiring workday, you’ve probably yearned for a better way to do this.
While you’ve been able to buy pretty much everything else online with ease for decades now, online grocery shopping has been slow to catch on. Luckily, the days of having to trudge through the aisles and choose the shortest checkout line are pretty much in the past. Several online options are now available, letting you get your groceries delivered cheaply and easily.
Online grocery delivery service Instacart lets you order from supermarkets and other stores near you for same-day delivery or in-store pickup. It’s an independent service, meaning no supermarket or retailer owns it.
How It Works
When you create and log into an account on Instacart, you’re directed to a list of stores available near you. The list tells you whether each store offers delivery, pickup, or both. Choose a store to see the products it has available.
Just below the search bar on each store’s page, there are usually images of featured products. Some are just products the store wants to promote, such as items from its house brand. But some have a special coupon or discount attached to them.
If you don’t find a deal you’re interested in, you can search for what you want to buy by typing things like “broccoli” or “frozen pizza” into the search bar. You can click on the plus sign in the upper right-hand corner to add an item to your cart right away or click on the item itself to learn more about it.
If you click the plus sign to add it to your cart immediately, a pop-up appears, giving you the option to adjust the quantity. If stock levels of a particular product are low, a pop-up window notifies you and allows you to request a substitute in case they run out.
Clicking on the item gives you more options. It causes a window to pop up with a larger image and the ability to adjust the quantity before you add it to the cart. If you’re finicky about your groceries or worried you won’t get exactly what you want or need, you can leave notes in your order under the “add instructions” tab. For example, if you plan to make guacamole later in the week, you can ask for unripe avocados. If you want guacamole the second your groceries get to you, ask for ripe ones. You can also indicate whether replacements or substitutions are OK.
If a product has a coupon attached to it, you can click “apply coupon” before adding the item to your cart to take advantage of the savings.
Once everything you want from that store is in your cart, you can choose to start an order at another store or move to checkout. If you want to buy from another store, just repeat the process of finding a store and searching for and adding items to your cart. All your purchases go into the same cart, and you complete one checkout, even if you order from multiple stores.
When you’re ready to check out, click on the cart icon, then the checkout button. Many stores have an order minimum, such as $10. If your total is below the minimum, you must keep shopping to reach the threshold or you won’t be able to check out.
Once you make it to the checkout section, it works much like any other online store. Since you can only use Instacart with an account, the checkout page auto-populates with details from your account, such as your address. You have the option to change the address — for example, if you place an order while on vacation or for a friend.
Next, you can choose your delivery time window. Delivery can often be within two hours, depending on the time of day and how busy the service is. You also have the choice of picking a future delivery date and time, such as the next day or over the weekend. When you’re choosing your delivery date and time, you can see the price for each option. Sometimes, the prices are higher based on demand. If you order from more than one store, you pay separate delivery fees for each.
After you’ve picked a delivery date and time, you provide a phone number so your Instacart shopper can call or text you if needed. Finally, you provide your payment details. The site accepts pretty much any credit card.
On the right of the screen is a breakdown of the cost of the service. You can see the total of your grocery order, the total delivery fee, the service fee, and sales tax. You can also add a tip for your driver to this section. If you have a promotional code, you can type it into the box on the right side of the screen.
Instacart then sends your order to an Instacart personal shopper, who visits one or more local grocery stores to gather your order. Then they drive the groceries to your home and hand them to you at the door.
Or you can skip delivery and arrange to pick up your order at stores that offer the option. You can pick up your order about two hours after placing it or choose a time up to three days in advance. If you decide to pick up your order, you’ll get a text when it’s ready, either from a personal shopper or a store employee. Just reply when you’re on your way and when you’ve arrived. An employee or shopper brings your order out to your car so you don’t have to go into the store.
Where It’s Available
Instacart is available in hundreds of regions in the U.S. and Canada. The company also says it regularly adds new areas.
The stores Instacart delivers from vary from region to region. For example, I live in Philadelphia, and I can schedule a delivery from grocery stores like Aldi, Sprouts, Acme, and ShopRite. I can also ask for delivery from warehouse stores like Costco or Sam’s Club, from drugstores like CVS, and even shop locally owned businesses, such as Reading Terminal Market or DiBruno Bros.
Instacart isn’t free. They base delivery fees on how much and when you order. These fees are usually somewhere between the cost of a latte and the cost of a latte plus a pastry. Along with the delivery fee, there’s also a 5% service fee. If you shop during peak hours, such as right after the typical workday or near a holiday, you can expect to pay an extra peak-time fee too. Peak fees, called “Busy Pricing,” start at $1 more per delivery and go up from there.
You also have the option of tipping your driver or personal shopper during checkout. The default tip is about 10% of your order total, but you can change the amount.
If you plan to use the service regularly, it makes sense to sign up for Instacart Express, which gives you free delivery on orders over $35, a reduced service fee, and no peak-time fees. You can pay either an annual fee or a monthly fee for the service. Whichever way you pay, it costs slightly less than an Amazon Prime membership.
The prices you see listed on the Instacart website or app are sometimes different from the prices you see in the store. Each retailer determines how much they charge on Instacart. Some stores use the same prices in-store and on Instacart. Others set their Instacart prices a little higher.
In some cases, you see specials or coupon offers available through Instacart. Special offers aren’t necessarily the same ones available in-store, so if you regularly use a weekly flyer to plan your grocery shopping, be prepared to see some variation.
Sometimes, products available on Instacart are connected to coupons. They usually display products with coupons on the front page of the store. But you can’t use digital coupon codes or paper manufacturer coupons on Instacart.
Although it’s not available for all stores, you can sometimes also add your loyalty card numbers before checking out to take advantage of any points or rewards the card provides.
FreshDirect is very different from Instacart. You aren’t paying to have someone go to a supermarket and shop for you. Instead, shopping on FreshDirect is a lot like placing an Amazon order. You pick out the things you want, and workers pull them from a warehouse, box them up, and ship them to you.
You can choose your delivery date from a list of available time slots, with same-day delivery available in both New York and New Jersey. You can shop up to a week in advance of your planned delivery date.
How It Works
Unlike Instacart, you can browse FreshDirect without creating an account. And since FreshDirect is an online supermarket rather than an intermediary like Instacart, you also don’t have to choose a store first.
There’s a search bar on the top of the page to look for specific products. FreshDirect doesn’t have as many product options as a standard brick-and-mortar supermarket. For example, a search for Snickers might return two items — a bag of miniature candy bars and a box of ice cream bars — though availability is subject to change.
You can add items directly to your cart by hovering over them. A small window appears letting you adjust the quantity before adding it to your cart. If you need more information about the product, you can click on it to get to a page with a bigger image, nutritional facts, and an ingredients list. You can also add the item to your cart from that page.
Although you can browse and add things to your cart without an account, once it’s time to check out, you must log in. You can either create an account directly on FreshDirect or link your Facebook or Google account.
Once you set up your account, you can access your cart and start checkout. You put in the delivery address, providing any delivery instructions like “Ring doorbell” or “Text when you arrive.” You can also state whether it’s OK to leave the groceries with a door attendant or leave the package if there’s no answer.
Next, you choose a delivery time. Delivery is usually available anytime from the same day to the next week. Some slots sell out quickly, so sometimes you have to be flexible about when you get your delivery. For example, a next-day time slot between 5pm and 7pm is often tough to get if you’re ordering groceries at 6pm the night before.
You can put in any promo codes during checkout. As far as payment options go, FreshDirect takes credit cards, PayPal, and MasterPass.
You can also shop from the FreshDirect app.
Where It’s Available
FreshDirect isn’t available in many areas. It started as a service for New Yorkers and has since expanded to include other areas in the Northeast, such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and parts of Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Fresh Direct also delivers to the Jersey Shore and the Hamptons during the summer.
FreshDirect bases its delivery fees on location. If you want to have your groceries delivered to your summer home in the Hamptons, you can expect to pay about three times the rate as having your groceries delivered to Philly or Manhattan. If I were to get FreshDirect to my home in Philadelphia, the delivery fee is about the same as one month of a streaming service.
If you plan to use FreshDirect a lot, you can purchase a DeliveryPass, a semiannual or annual subscription that waives the delivery fee. The cost of the subscription varies based on when you want your groceries delivered. An annual subscription costs a little more than AmazonPrime. If you want the option of delivery any day of the week, you pay about twice as much for the subscription compared to limiting yourself to midweek deliveries.
Since FreshDirect isn’t shopping at other retailers, it sets its own prices for products. Prices are comparable to what I’d pay in a Philadelphia supermarket, perhaps a little higher in some cases.
Like any other grocery store, you can save with FreshDirect sales and special promotions. FreshDirect sometimes emails customers promo codes. For the extreme couponers, there’s also a coupon section on the site, but you can’t use separate paper or digital manufacturer coupons.
Whole Foods, Amazon Prime Now, & AmazonFresh
You probably didn’t expect to see Whole Foods — aka “Whole Paycheck” — on a list of cheap online grocery sites. But ever since Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017, things have changed at the retailer.
Whole Foods now often features exclusive deals just for Amazon Prime members. If you want your groceries delivered in about two hours, you can get them from Whole Foods through Amazon Prime Now. In addition to groceries from Whole Foods, Amazon Prime Now makes deliveries from other stores in some areas.
Don’t confuse Amazon Prime Now with AmazonFresh, which is another grocery delivery service the retailer offers. As of 2020, both Prime Now and AmazonFresh are free with a Prime subscription. While Prime Now is ideal if you like to shop at Whole Foods, AmazonFresh makes more sense if you prefer to purchase national brands.
How It Works
You can shop through Prime Now by going through either Amazon’s or Whole Foods’s website or using the Prime Now app. You can only use AmazonFresh through Amazon’s site or the Amazon app. You need to be signed in to your Amazon Prime account to use either service.
You can search for the exact items you need using the search bar at the top of each site or browse the front page to see what’s popular or on special this week. Amazon and Whole Foods often run specials that are only available to people with a Prime membership, so there’s a real chance for savings.
If you’ve ever ordered from Amazon before, you’re probably pretty familiar with the process. Once you’ve filled your cart with groceries, you can go to checkout. There, your delivery address and payment information usually auto-populate based on what’s in your account. You can also update the information if you want to pay with a different card or deliver to a new address. If you have a promo code, you can enter it on this screen.
You can also choose a delivery time for your order, sometimes as soon as one hour later. If you want to schedule delivery for a later time, such as for the weekend or on a day when you’ll be home from work earlier than usual, you can. You also have the option of tipping your driver before you check out.
Where It’s Available
Amazon Prime Now is available in many cities across the U.S. and in cities in the U.K., Italy, and Japan. AmazonFresh was initially available in only a handful of cities but expanded its availability at the end of 2019, according to Forbes. Depending on when you order, you can get your groceries within one or two hours.
If you have an Amazon Prime subscription, you don’t have to pay extra to take advantage of Prime Now or AmazonFresh unless your order is under $35. An annual subscription is about the price of a nice dinner for two at a restaurant, while the monthly price is about the same as a large pizza.
There’s a fee tacked onto smaller orders, usually about the price of a latte. If you want your order ASAP (within one hour), the fee is about double that.
You also have the option of tipping the person who delivers your groceries to you. Amazon recommends a 20% tip, but you can change it if you want.
Pricing for Prime Now products seems comparable to what you’d see on the store shelves at Whole Foods. Despite its reputation, Whole Foods’ pricing isn’t as astronomical as you think. I’ve found that store-brand basics, like canned beans or canned tomatoes, often cost less than the products on offer at other grocery chains.
Prime Now also offers special pricing on certain products as a perk to members but doesn’t take manufacturer’s coupons. However, if you’re the type of shopper to regularly compare prices at different stores or use a grocery price book, you’re likely to find that Whole Foods and Prime Now often have lower prices, even once you add in the driver’s tip.
Peapod has been around since 1989. It’s owned by the same company that owns Stop-N-Shop, Food Lion, and Giant, and it offers delivery from those stores, depending on your location.
You can get next-day delivery or place your order up to a week in advance. If you choose to have your groceries delivered during slower time windows, you often get a discount on the delivery fee. You can also choose to pick up your order from a nearby store for a reduced fee.
How It Works
You can browse Peapod without making an account as long as your zip code is within its service area. On the front page of the site, you can search for specific products by name, browse by category, or look through this week’s specials. You can also use the app for Android or iOS.
You can add items to your cart right from the page or click on a product image to learn more about it. If you click on an item, you can also leave instructions to Peapod about what to do if that item isn’t available. For example, for Honey Nut Cheerios, you have the option of substituting a different-size box if the size you chose isn’t available.
Once you’ve added all the items you want to your cart, you can check out. First, create an account with the site. When you create your account, you can put in the loyalty card number of the store you’re shopping from if you have one.
You can then choose between pickup or delivery service. If you opt for pickup, a list of the company’s stores near you appears, and you can select the one you prefer. You then choose a time to pick up your order, usually at least a day or two later. Available pickup times are in one-hour increments — for example, between 9am and 10am on Saturday.
The store then sends you an email letting you know when your order is ready. It also has instructions about where to go to get your groceries, such as the customer service desk.
If you choose delivery, Peapod shows you a list of times along with the cost of those times. For example, if you order groceries on a Tuesday, you can save a few dollars by choosing Thursday delivery rather than Wednesday. You can save even more by picking a delivery window over the weekend.
The wider your delivery window, the lower the price too. For example, if you choose a delivery window of 8:30am to 2pm on a Saturday, delivery is cheaper compared to a window of 10am to 12pm.
Peapod accepts credit or debit cards as payment. You put in your card information just before finalizing your order.
One notable difference between Peapod and Instacart is that the people who deliver for Peapod are professional delivery drivers, not people working for the service as a side gig. Since a supermarket company owns the service, the people doing your shopping are employees of the supermarket your groceries come from.
Where It’s Available
Peapod is only available in a few markets, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. The areas it serves include:
- Chicago and the surrounding area
- Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin
- Rhode Island
- Southern New Hampshire
- New York
- New Jersey
- Washington, D.C.
- Philadelphia, Southeastern and Central Pennsylvania
The service delivers groceries from supermarkets owned by its parent company and from a warehouse in Chicago. Where I live, the groceries available from Peapod come from Giant.
Peapod charges a delivery fee and has a minimum order requirement of $60. The standard delivery fee is about the same as one month of a streaming service, and the pickup fee is about half the cost of delivery. There’s also a fuel surcharge fee added to orders. Peapod doesn’t expect or require tips for drivers but notes that a tip is always appreciated. You can tip your driver in cash when they arrive.
If you plan to use Peapod frequently, you can sometimes save by purchasing a PodPass subscription, which gives you unlimited free deliveries for a fee. An annual subscription to PodPass is about the same price as an Amazon Prime subscription.
Pricing from Peapod is the same as online as in-store. The service also offers weekly specials that are only available to Peapod shoppers. Putting in your loyalty number lets you take advantage of any savings available through it too.
Peapod also accepts paper manufacturer’s coupons. If you have coupons to redeem, hand them to your driver when they deliver your order. PeaPod credits your account for the amount of the coupons.
Shipt is a lot like Instacart in that you place your order online and a shopper heads to the store and delivers your groceries to your door. Target, which is one of the stores available on Shipt, currently owns the company. Other stores include CVS, Meijer, HEB, and PetCo.
The service offers same-day delivery. In some cases, you can even get one-hour delivery. Shipt can deliver from many stores 24 hours per day, depending on the store’s hours.
Shipt is a subscription program. With a membership, deliveries over $35 are free. You pay a per-delivery fee for smaller orders.
How It Works
Like Instacart, you must create an account before you can start browsing what’s available on Shipt. You can use Shipt from its website, while on Target’s website, or by downloading the app for Android or iOS. If you shop from Shipt’s site, you must also agree to a subscription plan upfront.
Once you open your account, Shipt’s online interface looks a lot like Instacart’s. You can toggle between available stores near the top of the screen. You search for items using the search bar or browse featured and on-sale items right from the front page. Click a plus sign to add items right to your cart, or click on the items directly to learn more about them.
After you’ve added everything you need to your cart, you can head to checkout by clicking “Checkout” from your cart. On the checkout page, you confirm the delivery address, put in your credit card details, choose a delivery time, and provide your phone number. You can also put in a promo code if you have one. Shipt also lets you leave instructions for shoppers on what to do if something isn’t available.
Delivery times are available in one-hour windows, starting about two hours after you place your order. For example, if you order at 6:30pm on a Tuesday, your delivery can arrive as early as 8pm that same day. If your order is under the free-delivery threshold, the fee is the same no matter when you choose delivery.
Where It’s Available
Shipt currently serves around 260 cities in the U.S. You can put your zip code into the company’s website or app to see if it’s available where you live. The available stores vary based on your location.
Shipt charges a delivery fee on orders under $35. The delivery fee is a little less than a one-month streaming service subscription. Orders over $35 get delivered for free. But you do need to purchase a subscription before you place an order.
Subscriptions are available on a month-to-month basis or for a lower annual fee. The monthly fee is close to what you’d pay for a streaming service, while the annual fee works out to be less than an annual Amazon Prime membership.
You don’t have to tip your shopper or delivery person with Shipt, but they encourage you to. You can tip through the app or give your shopper cash.
Shipt admits that its prices are higher than in-store pricing. The service does occasionally offer discounted or special pricing on products but doesn’t accept manufacturer’s coupons. That said, when I was using it, the prices for products at Target seemed to be the same as the prices available through Target’s regular website. And if you’re a member of Target Circle, you can take advantage of savings offers to Circle members when you use Shipt.
You probably can’t save money on groceries by ordering them from a delivery service, especially once you add in delivery fees, subscription costs, and tips for your shopper or driver. But what online grocery shopping can save you is time. You don’t have to drive, walk, or take public transportation to the store, stroll up and down the aisles, or wait in the checkout line.
Shopping for groceries online for pickup or delivery can also help you cut back on impulse purchases, which can save you money. You’re less likely to impulse-buy a box of cookies or a bag of chips if you have to type the name of the product into a website or app, then add it to your cart. It’s also easier to track the running total of your order when you have a digital cart compared to a physical one — another way to make sure you’re staying within budget.
Have you used any online grocery delivery services? What did you think?