When shopping at the grocery store, I occasionally see people wearing bright green shirts staring at their phones and appearing to “check” things off on the screen. The first time I saw this happening, I thought I had missed something and that there was some sort of “Supermarket sweep” style game happening in the store. Then, with a closer look, I noticed the shirts said “Instacart” next to a cute, little logo carrot.
As it would turn out, Instacart is an app that delivers groceries to you—so you don’t have to go to the store. The company’s motto of “groceries delivered in an hour” is all too familiar for the world we live in; one that expects anything to be in reach through a tap on a smartphone.
Upon learning more about Instacart, my first instinct was to question if people in Seattle really wanted to pay someone to go to the grocery store for them. I can totally see this working in New York City or San Francisco, but Fresh Direct has been around since 2011 and there are quite a few grocery stores that offer delivery. I also figured that most people in Seattle either have a car, or live near a grocery store in a walk able neighborhood—I have two grocery stores directly close to me, and there are multiple others only a 10-20 minute walk away.
However, one night, I was completely exhausted and wanted to cook dinner, but wasn’t feeling up for going out to the store. I like to purchase meat and seafood from my local co-op, but it’s about a 20-minute walk away. I was also craving a very specific product for dessert, one only sold in a few stores in Seattle, with the co-op being one of those. Time kept passing and I couldn’t work up the energy to go grocery shopping, when I suddenly remembered Instacart and a light bulb went off: I could ask someone else to go to the store for me.
Shopping for groceries with your phone
Almost instantly, I visited the website to learn more about how this works. On both the website and in the app, I was met with a very sleek, well-designed page that walks you through the ordering process from start to finish. Moreover, I was very impressed with the fact that I could order from Whole Foods, Costco, Cash & Carry (which I assume must be convenient for any small business or restaurant owner) and, to my surprise, the co-op near my apartment!
I was hooked, but mostly excited at the fact that I didn’t have to trek out into the cold and head to the grocery store. The only downside was that it was 6pm on a Sunday and the next delivery window was not until 9pm. But, considering I was making a rash decision on the busiest day for shoppers, I was fine with waiting to receive my groceries until later. While you can pay more to have your groceries delivered to you within the hour, I opted to wait, especially because when you place your first order on Instacart, you get the delivery for free!
Ordering is really easy, especially if you know exactly what you are looking for. The grocery store’s inventory is organized into departments and there is a ‘search’ tab for looking up specific brands or items. For any extreme couponers, there is a ‘Coupons’ tab so you can see what all the in-store deals are. Some items even get you free delivery, but you have to spend a certain amount on those products to qualify.
Once all of your items are selected, you simply head to the checkout, type in your address, select the delivery time you want (you can plan ahead and place an order for any day during the week) and just like that, someone is off shopping in the store for you while you lounge on the couch.
What happens in-store when you order groceries online?
Unlike other delivery apps, Instacart has multiple options for those who want to earn money through working for the app. Similar to how Postmates lets you deliver by biking, walking or driving, Instacart offers potential shoppers multiple job opportunities.
On the one end, there are the people who work in the grocery store as shoppers and cashiers. These people deal with putting the order together, checking out the payment, and setting up the order to go out for delivery. They are not employed by the grocery store, but are employees of Instacart, like Uber or Postmates.
Also similar to Uber, Instacart has had some recent controversies, including having to reclassify some of their shoppers as employees after being sued for underpaying and misrepresenting how much a shopper world earn on an hourly basis. When the app is busy during peak times, shoppers reportedly earn upwards of $20 per hour, however, when the app is not busy, shoppers reportedly only earn a measly $10 an hour. On average, shoppers make well below the advertised earnings of $25 an hour.
Drivers are those who pick up the order from the store and make the delivery. Instacart classifies these workers as “independent contractors” though their earnings are also very slim when it’s not busy. Some drivers reportedly sit in their car, just waiting for orders to come in. The problem is that all of that time-spent waiting is not paid time—and when you finally do get an order, you’re barely making minimum wage for that hour or longer of your time.
For a delivery service that is about to potentially be valued at $3 billion and would not exist without its shoppers and drivers, you would think they would start paying their workers better.
Though I really enjoyed my shopping experience on Instacart, it was disheartening to do research the company and learn about how its workers are treated. Though it’s not like this is new for a company to do—Lyft, Uber, Postmates and virtually any app that offers part-time job opportunities are guilty of these same issues—it almost makes you feel bad about using the service when you realize that this person is doing all of this work to make your life easier, yet they’re making nearly nothing (unless you give a very generous tip, which I assume is also then split among all of the people involved in your order).
In 2016, the company actually removed the option to tip and replaced it with a “service fee” that Instacart collected, instead of its shoppers and delivery drivers. After receiving numerous complaints for employees, they added the tipping feature back.
The concept of Instacart is great. It’s a beautifully designed app that understands how customers shop for groceries and makes it more convenient—especially for anyone who is busy, doesn’t have a car or is unable to carry home all of the groceries they want to get. Or, for people like me, who occasionally just get very lazy and don’t want to go to the store if they don’t have to. But if Instacart wants to succeed and not just put customers and sales first, it really needs to find a way to offer its workers a better deal, or else it will cease to exist without anyone doing the shopping.