It all started with a basket of cherry tomatoes.
I had a relatively problem-free history of ordering my groceries online from my local store before March 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic came along. My store's waiting list for deliveries stretched to three weeks, then four, as more and more people opted to skip shopping in person. The wait was bad enough, but then the tomatoes happened.
Trying new recipes is something I really enjoy doing with a nice glass of wine after a long work day. The cherry tomatoes were for a specific recipe, along with about seven other items. After weeks of waiting, here came my delivery...without the tomatoes. My store was out of them.
I suspected this might happen with the toilet paper, but tomatoes? Seriously? The problem was that I had all those other ingredients that wouldn’t serve much of a purpose without the tomatoes to finish off the recipe. So I went back online and put in a second order, this time with Instacart. I really wanted tomatoes – any tomatoes. I had them within an hour, pandemic and all.
It’s Not Just About Groceries
Instacart shops approximately 40,000 stores in more than 5,500 cities across the U.S. and Canada, and they don’t do just groceries. They shopped Acme for me on that first order, but I could just as easily have requested Aldi, Publix, CVS, Family Dollar, Petco, BJs, Big Lots, or even Bed Bath & Beyond. Instacart provides an online tool to identify stores they can shop for you in your area.
They'll even fill prescriptions and you can get liquor, too, if you like to have a little glass of wine while you’re cooking, although you do have to provide ID to accept these types of deliveries.
Read More: Best Bang for Your Buck at Bulk Stores
Placing Your Order
Instacart is online and they also have a pretty decent app. You’ll need an email address to create an account, and you must attach the obligatory password, but a membership isn’t required. Select the store – or stores – you want to shop at, and start filling your basket(s). You’re not limited to just one retailer. Feel free to place an order with Aldi and CVS as well.
Communicate With Your Shopper
The thing I like most about Instacart is that I’m not a faceless, online order with them. A “personal shopper” gathers my groceries and will reach out to me by text when they realize that everyone in my state has been feverishly buying up all the cherry tomatoes. I would have had the option to delete those other seven recipe ingredients, or I could have chosen some other kind of tomato.
They'll even snap pictures of alternate products if the store is out of something, so you can select the one that works best for you. You can chat via text to settle on another selection.
Collect Your Purchases
The next message you’ll receive is that your shopper has checked out. Then, you’ll receive another when your shopper is on their way to your address, along with an estimated arrival time. You can even follow them on the app’s map.
You can choose whatever time is most convenient for you to unload a bunch of groceries and stash them in your pantry, fridge or freezer – today, tomorrow, or even at the end of the week. Actual hours depend on the store’s hours, but it can be as late as midnight in some cases.
Instacart offers contactless delivery, which nicely accommodates the ongoing COVID-19 situation. This is the default option, but you can uncheck the “Leave at my door” box when you’re placing your order if you’re not comfortable with your food sitting unattended on your porch while you're elsewhere. You don't even have to be home to accept delivery. Your shopper will take a picture of your groceries at your door and text it to you so you know your order has arrived.
What they won’t do is help you carry your stuff inside. They can't enter your home.
What Does This Cost?
There’s a service fee of at least 5% of the cost of your order, and you’ll pay an additional $3.99 for delivery. I had a surprise with my last order, which included a sizable box of cat litter and some 2-liter bottles of Pepsi. Instacart tacked on a “heavy order” surcharge of $2.27.
But you have the option of signing up for an Instacart Express membership that will waive the delivery fee on orders over $35 and reduce the service fee. It’s $99 a year for an annual membership, which works out to $8.25 a month, or $9.99 a month if you want to renew your membership monthly. But this could be a good deal if your costs per order per month work out to be more. I paid $15.15 in fees the last time I used Instacart (it was a relatively sizable order and it included that heavy-lifting charge), so I would have saved a few dollars with the Express membership option.
As for the groceries or products themselves, their prices aren’t set by Instacart, but rather by the retailer. Instacart has no control over this.
Tipping is encouraged, but it’s optional, not required. Instacart says that the entirety of your tip goes to your shopper.
Is It Worth It?
Instacart can be a godsend for those with physical limitations, and for those who don't drive. They'd have to pay a cab or Uber anyway to get to the store, and Instacart saves them the aggravation. Personally, it makes more financial sense for me to stay home and work and let someone else shop for me because I freelance – it would cost me more than those fees to take an hour or so out of my workday to visit the market.
Ask yourself what your time is worth. Is there anything you’d rather be doing than plodding down a grocery store aisle pushing a cart? Instacart isn’t free, but the cost is really pretty reasonable and you’ll get a whole lot for your money – including tomato replacements.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.