Instacart.com: The Digital Evolution of the Hunter-Gatherer
My dream of never needing to jostle my way through Whole Foods on a Sunday afternoon just got closer to reality…for a price. Recently Instacart, a startup with the tag line "The best way to shop for groceries," began offering 2 hour home delivery in the metro Atlanta area. Currently they have partnered with three stores – Whole Foods, Kroger and Costco. Delivery is free with the first order and can be as little as $3.99 per order on subsequent orders. They also offer a subscription based service with free delivery for $99 a year, similar in concept to the $79-per-year Amazon Prime. At first blush, fees for using the service seem relatively nominal especially when you consider time saved, not having to fight traffic and that you get your own personal shopper. Unfortunately the actual cost of the service is not apparent unless you are willing to explore the “FAQ” on the Instacart site or are willing to do some price comparisons. Initially I assumed the prices listed on the instacart site were the same as the prices in Whole Foods and it wasn’t until after I placed my initial order and then did a little online research that I discovered there is a price markup of anywhere from 10 to 15 percent per item. Logistically, this isn’t an issue for me; personally, I am willing to pay for a service that gives me back time, a very limited resource in my life. However, ethically I was disappointed that the company wasn’t more transparent around the actual cost of the service. In an age where perception can drive sales up or down, it seems like very poor marketing not to be honest about the cost and value of a service like Instacart.
Ordering I am an experienced Amazon Prime user and will often shop for an item on Amazon first regardless of price. So to some degree I have been trained as a consumer to expect a very detailed front end ordering experience. Amazon does a great job of creating and fleshing out a buying experience that answers most of the questions one would have about a given product. Amazon also provides top notch customer service during and after every step of the ordering process. So when I sat down to order on Instacart I was surprised by the seeming lack of sophisitication in their web portal. Items are grouped in categories such as produce, which is in turn divided into subcategories such as fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, etc. with the most popular items appearing at the top of each category. The result is sometimes an endless scrolling list of items, making browsing clunky and at times consuming. Many of the products are missing pictures and/or have limited descriptions. More than once I was unable to find a specific item because I wasn’t sure which category to look in - this applies to processed foods primarily. It is possible to narrow one’s search to just organic items, but overall the web ordering portal could use some additional features. To Instacart's credit there is a way to add an item to your order if it is not listed on the site. A message is then passed on to your personal shopper and they do their best to locate the item. I tried this with Sencha Shots (green tea) and it worked flawlessly. Another smart feature of the Instacart site is the built in recipe section. It allows you to locate and plan meals and then order all of the necessary ingredients. This is a particularly nice feature for special occasions or on those weeks when the old stand by meals begin to feel boring.
Personal Shopper Once you send your order to Instacart they send it to a personal shopper and, at least in my experience, this is where the service really shines. I opted to provide my personal shopper with my phone number. As it turned out several of the items I ordered were out of stock, as my personal shopper filled my order, she texted me and we quickly resolved the out-of-stock items. Between the time I paid for my order and the time it was delivered, a mere 53 minutes elapsed. The items arrived in blue Instacart bags and were delivered directly to the door of my high-rise condo (this is a nice perk since sometimes getting groceries from the car into the lobby and down the hall in such a building can be almost as annoying as fighting traffic).
The Products One of my main concerns was having someone else pick out things like produce and meats. Since I was using my first order as a test run, I threw in as many items as possible that I knew might be a problem. For example various kinds of tomatoes, onions, and avocados. To my delight every item was a “good pick” - for example the avocados were just ripe enough to last a few days, while the tomatoes were ripe and ready to eat. There was a small issue with an heirloom tomato being squished, but I have a feeling this had more to do with how it was bagged and less to do with the pick quality. Because the Instacart site isn’t as user friendly as it could be, I also had a small problem with ordering the wrong size of sparkling mineral water - this was as much user error as anything. Overall though, I was very happy with the quality of all products.
Actual Cost Shipping was free for this order and I spent about $300 (which is average for us when we do major weekly shopping at Whole Foods). I estimate I spent an additional $25 - $35 in convenience fees and I added a tip (which is optional). For a household of four that breaks out to be around $450 for each person over the course of a year. I am sure there are ways to lower this based on sale items, shopping at Costco vs Kroger vs Whole Foods, etc. There is also a coupon section on the Instacart site, I didn’t use it, but it could be a way to reduce overall costs.
Post Order Instacart provides a full list of items purchased, any substitutions made, and products that were out of stock. I received three emails after delivery of my order, one being a survey on rating the service and one being a follow-up to the survey. I continued to find value with the service throughout the week primarily because I had everything I needed to prepare multiple meals.
Conclusion Some people might argue that Instacart is a luxury service, serving a perceived need, rather than a necessity for living a more functional life. Certainly it appears that Instacart isn’t sure yet whether they even want their users to be aware of how much the service itself actually costs and this ultimately will not work in their favor. However from my experience, there is a great deal of value in the service itself. Even at a 15% markup the service is a great value if you factor in the amount of time required to do shopping for an entire week. There is also the added benefit of being able to put together an order at 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning and being able to place the order from your own kitchen means you never end up with eight cans of black beans because you forget that you purchased two cans last week and two cans the week before. For anyone who values time saved over money spent, Instacart’s on demand grocery delivery service is definitely worth considering. For shoppers trying to stay at or below a preset budget, I am not sure Instacart adds up.