"The best way to shop for groceries." That's the tagline on the homepage of Instacart, the two-year-old grocery delivery company that lets you shop online from major grocery stores like Whole Foods and Costco, and then delivers your groceries to you that same day, often within an hour or two.
Sound too good to be true? That's what I wondered, and so I gave the service a spin. Here's what I discovered.
How it works: Instacart lets you shop from local grocery stores online, then sends a personal shopper to pick up and deliver your order to you the same day. Unlike other grocery delivery services, the company doesn't stockpile fresh produce in a massive warehouse; rather, it lets you shop major grocery stores like Whole Foods, Shaw's, and Costco through its website, and then sends your order to one of its part-time employees. This "personal shopper" goes to the store, picks up everything on your list, and then drives it to you in their own car. (Think of it as the Uber of grocery delivery!)
Cities it serves: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, Seattle & Washington D.C. areas
Stores it partners with: Whole Foods, Costco, Kroger, The Food Emporium, Shaw's, and other supermarkets local to your area. (But not Trader Joe's! The two companies had a falling out, and Instacart's "personal shoppers" are now banned from TJ's stores.)
Delivery costs: Delivery is free for your first order. After that, it starts at $3.99 for two hour delivery and $5.99 for one hour delivery when you spend $35 or more. Delivery prices for your individual order are shown at checkout. There's also an option to join the Instacart Express membership club, which offers free delivery on 2 hour and scheduled grocery deliveries over $35 for $99/year, after a free 2-week trial. Tips for your personal shopper optional but encouraged.
The Ordering Experience
After logging in, the first order of business was to choose which grocery store(s) I wanted to order from. There were four choices available to me in Boston: Shaw's, Harvest Co-Op Markets, Whole Foods, and Costco. I don't have a membership to Costco, but it turns out, I don't need one! Instacart will let me order all the bulk food items I want from Costco, no club membership required.
I chose to place an order from Whole Foods. Since I'm fairly familiar with the things I usually get from Whole Foods, I found it easiest just to search for the food item and brand. You can shop by category, though, and I was pleased to find a thorough selection of what I'd find in-store, including options to shop the Bulk and Specialty Cheese aisles. There were photos attached to most food items, which helped confirm I'd found the particular item I was looking for. Whole Foods' Everyday Value 365 brand items were all there as well.
Before I placed my order, the site allowed me to choose substitutions for all items in case they were out of stock, which was a nice feature. Instacart offered its own recommendations, but it was easy to customize the picks, or to decide just to have the item refunded instead. There was also an option to have my personal shopper call me to confirm any replacement purchases, but I didn't bother with that. I just chose a few solid replacements (mostly another brand, or an organic version of a non-organic pick) and then placed the order!
Now, this is where it got fun:
The confirmation page gave me live updates on my order, including the name of my personal shopper, when he/she started shopping for me, and when they'd finished, gotten in their car, and were headed my way. At that point I was able to follow them on a GPS map, so I knew when they were getting close to my home. The delivery was right on schedule, too. Within two hours my doorbell rang, and a friendly woman handed me three bags of groceries. She quickly ran down the list of substitutions she made, and then told me my receipt would be emailed to me.
I scanned my order and found it all correct. Yes, the avocados were unripe (I would've looked for one with a little give), but overall, it was exactly as I would have picked up in store.
So, sounds great, right? Well, yes, if it weren't for one thing, which is my biggest hesitation with Instacart: their pricing.
How Instacart prices its food
When I first put together my Whole Foods order on Instacart's site, I assumed all the prices were actual Whole Foods store prices, but that's not true**: they're Instacart prices, which some say are marked up a good 20% from what you'd pay in-store.
The company's pricing strategy isn't apparent anywhere on the main page. It's only when you dig into the FAQ that you get some info on it:
Yes, Instacart prices are our own and vary from the store’s price (except for alcoholic beverages, see below). If you notice an item that you believe is priced incorrectly or unfairly, please feel free to reach out. We reserve the right to cancel items that are priced incorrectly due to error.
Instacart also says on their Twitter page, "sometimes, our prices are lower or higher than the stores' prices, sometimes they are the same." When I compared what Instacart charged me with the in-store price, that's exactly what I found: some items were cheaper in-store than what Instacart charged me, some were the same price, and a few were more expensive, which meant Instacart was actually giving me a good deal.
For example, yellow onions, shallots, parsley, and yams were all priced the same. But Instacart charged me $2.99 for a can of Whole Foods' Everyday Value 365 garbanzo beans (the in-store price is only $1.49), $3.69 for the 365 brand of steel cut oats (in-store price $2.99), and $2.99 for a bunch of lacinato kale (in-store price $1.99). So I paid a premium on all those items, which is especially silly considering that you're buying Whole Foods' house brand because it's usually the most affordable option on the shelf.
But Instacart undercut Whole Foods' prices on a few items, too: a jar of Joyva sesame tahini was $6.99 in-store, but $3.50 on Instacart; bulk red lentils were $3.39/lb in-store, but I got mine for $1.29/lb; and a quart of buttermilk was $2.19 in-store, but $1.49 on Instacart.
Maybe it evens out in the end, but once you add in delivery cost and tip, it's likely Instacart still costs me more than if I shopped in-store, although perhaps not quite as much as feared, depending on what I'm ordering.
- Very convenient, particularly if you're sick and can't shop, or have little kids and can't get out of the house
- Thorough online selection, close to what you'd find in-store
- Ability to order from multiple local stores at once
- Access to Costco even without a membership
- Friendly personal shoppers and an easy ordering experience
- Can't be choosy about the produce
- Prices are Instacart's own, and vary from actual in-store prices, which means you could pay a premium (but not always). The markup varies from store to store, and it's not clear why some items are more expensive and others less.
- Doesn't take store sales, coupons, or rewards into account
I don't plan to use Instacart exclusively. When I have the time, I like shopping in person — picking out the produce I want, comparing prices, seeing what new thing grabs my eye. But on especially stressful days when getting to the store just isn't in the cards, or to have groceries delivered to a friend or a babysitter, I think it's a great option.
Have you ever ordered from Instacart? What has your experience been?
** Actually, apparently it is true. Instacart reached out to me this morning to let me know they have "an exclusive and official partnership with Whole Foods Market, meaning that we have the exact same prices as Whole Foods Market in-store." [Emphasis theirs.] That's great to know, but still doesn't match up with my in-store price sleuthing. I plan to investigate further, but just know that if you're ordering from Whole Foods, the prices should be the same online as in the store!