As most businesses shut their doors, modify service, or move to all-remote work in a collective effort to reduce the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, one part of the retail sector is experiencing a boom: the grocery store delivery industry.
An explosion in the U.S. case count in early March spurred waves of panic buying by consumers concerned they’d run out of food and household essentials in a long-duration quarantine situation. Meanwhile, vulnerable people at high risk of serious complications from the disease stocked up in anticipation of months of possible self-isolation.
Many others aren’t venturing out at all. But with help from a growing gaggle of grocery store delivery apps, they’re still buying groceries, household supplies, pet food, and anything else in stock at their favorite supermarkets or warehouse stores.
Instacart is one of several grocery delivery apps worth trying. Available in dozens of U.S. markets, it offers access to multiple supermarket chains and food co-ops in a given city or metro area along with a smaller selection of pharmacies, ethnic markets, pet stores, warehouse stores, specialty retailers (such as Sur la Table), and liquor stores.
Instacart is easy and convenient to use, and it takes just a few minutes to create your account and begin building your first order. But before you jump on the trend, learn how Instacart works, how to get the most out of its features, and its key upsides and downsides.
How It Works
Setting up an Instacart customer account is easy. To sign up from the desktop site, simply provide your email address and zip code, then create a password. You can download the Instacart app from the Apple App Store or Google Play at any time, so if you plan to order exclusively from your phone or tablet, you don’t need to visit the desktop site at all.
Setting Up Your Account
After you create your account through the website or app, set it up for your first order. Click the “Account” button in the top navigation bar, then “Your Account” in the drop-down menu. There are several options in the left sidebar. For account setup, the three most important are:
- Loyalty cards
- Payment methods
Before your first order, add at least one delivery address (most likely your home or workplace), a credit or debit card for payment, and any store loyalty cards for participating retailers. On the loyalty cards screen, Instacart lists the options it knows operate in your area, but you can also manually add loyalty cards for retailers not listed.
Creating Your Order
Next, click the “Stores” tab in the upper left to browse retailers available on Instacart in your area. Click any store’s icon to begin shopping.
Each store’s default screen is an inventory list organized by department — for example, produce, meat and seafood, and beverages. Most stores also have categories for Featured Items and Quick & Easy Meals — such as prepared foods like rotisserie chicken — as well. Products with active store coupons appear higher on the default screen in the store’s coupon section. To see a full list of available products in each department, click the corresponding “View more” link.
You can quickly find specific products using the search bar above each store’s home screen. Type the first few letters of the item, then click to the closest result to see your options.
Adding something to your cart is as easy as clicking on it and selecting “Add to Cart.” On each product’s screen, you can adjust the quantity or quickly add accompanying products the app suggests people frequently buy together, such as lemons with chicken.
If there’s a coupon available, click “Apply Coupon” before adding it to your cart. You can search for coupon-connected goods separately in each store’s Coupons tab, which includes quantity-based deals (such as $1 off five cups of yogurt) and instant savings on single items.
While Instacart’s $10 order minimum isn’t particularly difficult to clear, it’s worth noting. If you need just one or two cheap goods from the store, you have to go in person or find another way to get it.
Placing & Receiving Your Order
When you’re ready to check out, click the “Go to Checkout” button. Enter your delivery address and payment information if you haven’t already. Note the estimated delivery time. If you don’t need your order as soon as possible or won’t be home until later, set the delivery time you prefer. Add instructions for the delivery person, such as how to gain access to a secure apartment building and your mobile number.
Your order’s cost breakdown appears in the right sidebar and includes:
- Subtotal: The base cost of your order before tax.
- Service Fee: A flat 5% of the subtotal or $2, whichever is greater. There’s a variable surcharge for alcohol delivery, including orders containing alcoholic and nonalcoholic items.
- Delivery Fee: This is variable and depends on the size of your order and local demand for delivery. When demand is high, “Busy Pricing” kicks in, doubling the base fee of about $4. Your first delivery is free with a $35 order minimum.
- Sales Tax: Estimate sales tax is based on state and local sales tax rates in your jurisdiction and the base cost of taxable inventory in your cart.
- Tip: An optional gratuity you can adjust as you see fit. Instacart gently encourages tipping with a default tip of $2 but also makes clear that it’s optional, and customers can change tips after delivery if you’re unsatisfied with the driver’s service. Your driver receives 100% of the tip.
As your delivery time approaches, make sure you’re available for the driver, especially if you need to buzz them in or physically meet them at your secure building’s communal entrance.
Instacart has some important features worth explaining in greater detail. These include store-specific coupons, Instacart gift cards, a flat-fee membership program that promises unlimited free delivery, and a store pickup option at select participating retailers.
Instacart allows account holders to create multiuser group carts to which any authorized member can add items. To create a group cart, invite friends or associates to join with a unique link or by sending an auto-generated email.
Instacart Express is a paid membership program that offers free unlimited one-hour delivery on orders over $35. After a 14-day free trial during which you can cancel without penalty, Instacart Express costs $99 per year. If you need to use Instacart about twice per month, Instacart Express can pay for itself, depending on your average delivery fee.
Instacart Gift Cards
You can purchase Instacart gift cards in any denomination. Before you do, make sure the intended recipient lives in an area Instacart serves.
Instacart offers a $10 grocery credit for each successful referral — defined as a new customer who creates an Instacart account and places at least one order.
Store Pickup Option
For a limited time, Instacart offers free in-store pickup on orders over $35. Otherwise, pickup costs $3.99 per order. While Instacart is likely to add more in-store pickup partners in the future, this option doesn’t appear to be widely available as of late March 2020.
Instacart’s most significant advantages include a broad retailer selection, easy access to store coupons and loyalty programs, convenient group ordering options, and unlimited free delivery for Instacart Express members.
- Not Limited to a Single Store. Instacart has a broad selection of participating retailers. Its lineup includes major national chains like Kroger, Costco, Petco, and Total Wine & More. That’s a big advantage over grocery delivery apps tied to specific chains (such as Peapod) or specific product categories (such as Drizly, which specializes in alcohol delivery).
- Store Coupons and Loyalty Cards Built Into the App. Instacart builds in store coupons and loyalty card information. These features make it easy to virtually clip deals and save — or take advantage of instant savings — on goods you’d buy anyway while earning loyalty program member rewards.
- Instacart Express Offers Big Savings During Peak Delivery Hours. For $99 per year, Instacart Express promises one-hour unlimited free delivery on every order. It’s a particularly good value during periods of peak shopping demand, when delivery fees are higher.
- Group Carts Simplify Ordering for Offices and Larger Families. Instacart’s group ordering feature is a godsend for larger families and co-workers ordering office staples or party supplies. If you’re part of an office party planning committee or putting together a big event like a bachelor or bachelorette party, allowing multiple people to add to your list is especially convenient.
- Good Referral Program. Instacart pays you $10 for every successful referral who creates an account and places their first order. That could be enough to offset the delivery fee and tip on your next order.
- Alcohol Delivery Where Permitted. Where permitted by law, Instacart allows alcohol delivery. That’s a bonus for party planners who don’t have time to make a separate trip to discount liquor stores like Total Wine & More, where the selection is much better and prices are lower than the typical grocery store’s alcohol aisle.
- Free Pickup on Orders Over $35 for a Limited Time. For a limited time, Instacart offers free pickup on grocery orders over $35. If you’re willing and able to travel to the store, that could mean significant savings.
Instacart’s notable disadvantages include the potential for high delivery fees, some gaps in retailer coverage, and spotty in-store pickup availability.
- Potential for High Delivery Fees. Instacart’s delivery and service fees are variable. In particular, the delivery fee is subject to change based on demand for Instacart’s services. If you can’t schedule your order in advance, you run the risk of sticker shock at checkout.
- Some Gaps in Retailer Coverage. Instacart’s retailer coverage isn’t perfect. Instacart omits several regional and national supermarket, pharmacy, and pet store chains in my area, for example. Spot checks of other states reveal similar gaps in coverage.
- Few Stores Offer Pickup. Instacart has a limited selection of stores with a pickup option. For customers who prefer to visit the store and pick up their orders, an expansion of this offering would be nice.
Difficult as it is to imagine at the moment, the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass. But the experience will forever change our society and economy. The remote work arrangements and virtual meetings adopted wholesale by white-collar workers could become permanent.
Following a recession that’s likely to rival the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in severity, if not duration, the social safety net could become more robust and equitable. And many COVID-19 converts to food and grocery delivery are likely to remain in the fold, even if they still run out to the store to pick up those one or two things they always seem to forget.
Instacart is well positioned to serve these new customers. With broad offerings, seamless couponing, and convenient group ordering, its popularity is easy to understand. If you’ve yet to experience what it has to offer, now’s the time.
Is Instacart your go-to grocery delivery app? How has your experience been so far?