Instacart Review — Is it Worth it?
Saturday mornings used to be simple. With my wife working late on Friday nights, we’d usually get up at a leisurely hour, make some coffee, and maybe go stroll the mall or see a movie. But, on one particular Saturday, I woke up thinking, “I need groceries… but I also don’t want to go get them.” This was soon followed by another thought: Instacart.
I was definitely late to the party here but, admittedly, it was only during the pandemic that I placed my first Instacart order. Sure, I’ve considered it in the past but, fancying myself a frugal person afraid of extra fees, I’d never actually done it. Would this Saturday splurge change my mind and prove that the service was indeed worth it? Let’s take a look at what you should know about Instacart, including some of the pros and cons.
What is Instacart? How Does it Work?
What is Instacart?
Instacart is a service where you can have groceries and some other items delivered to your door — sometimes within a few hours. While it may be best known as a mobile app, users can place orders via the desktop website as well. Speaking of the desktop site, it may also be a great place for new users to start as you can see if Instacart is available in your area before you go through the trouble of downloading the app.
Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on Instacart, in both a good and a bad way. On the one hand, the popularity of the service surged. At the same time, the company also made headlines due to “striking” shoppers. For the purposes of this review, we’ll be setting all that aside and, instead, looking at the basics of the service followed by my first-timer’s experience and some of the updates they’ve made since.
What stores are supported?
One thing about Instacart is that the selection of stores available on the service can vary depending on your location. However, as an example, some of the stores in my area include:
- Sam’s Club
- CVS Pharmacy
- Best Buy
- Brown Derby
- Bed Bath & Beyond
- and more
Two of the more interesting selections on that list are Sam’s Club and Costco. As you might know, both are warehouse clubs where membership is typically required. Despite this, Instacart customers can order deliveries regardless of whether or not they’re members. However, if you do have a membership, you can add your member number to your profile (under Account Settings > Loyalty Cards) in order to be eligible for special pricing on certain items.
How much does it cost?
There are three main fees to consider with Instacart: delivery fee, service fee, and tip.
First up, the delivery fee is the amount it will cost to have your order, well, delivered. These fees start at $3.99 but can vary depending on a number of factors, including volume of business, size of your order, and the time your order is being delivered. When you go to checkout, you’ll be able to browse available delivery windows accompanied by the applicable delivery fee for that time. Additionally, Priority delivery may be available for an extra fee of $2 or more.
As for the service fee, it amounts to 5% of your order’s total, with a minimum of $2. This applies to all non-alcoholic items. Meanwhile, alcohol has its own set of service fees, ranging from $2 to $10 depending on the price.
Finally, the tip is the amount that goes directly to your shopper and is set by you, the customer. In the app, Instacart will offer suggested amounts that are percentages of your order total or you can enter a dollar amount of your own. Keep in mind that the delivery fees and service fees may not directly benefit shoppers, so tipping is the best way to show your appreciation. Also, you can adjust your tip up to three days after your order is completed and delivered.
Lastly, Instacart does warn that some prices on their service may be higher than in-store. They assure customers that these prices are set by the retailers though. To see what each store’s policy is, you can tap “more info” on the location’s landing page.
What is Instacart Express?
For those who plan on ordering Instacart often, Instacart Express may be a worthwhile investment. For one, Instacart Express customers pay no delivery fees on orders over $35. Additionally, Express users enjoy lower service fees as well — including for alcohol delivery, with fees ranging from $.80 to $4 instead of $2 to $10. Another notable perk is that Instacart Express members can also order from multiple stores as part of one trip with no additional fee. Plus, Express customers can now earn 5% back on their eligible pickup orders back in the form of a credit. Note that this 5% is based on the subtotal of your order, isn’t earned from alcohol or prescription items, and won’t apply to items that cost $150 or more.
The cost for joining Instacart Express is $9.99 per month or $99 a year when paid upfront.
One newer feature that’s recently come to Instacart is the curbside pickup option. Specifically, in my area, this is currently available for Aldi. When this alternative is offered, it will show next to “Delivery” on the store’s landing page.
Aldi Curbside Pickup starts off the same way as any Instacart delivery, with customers selecting their items. However, when it’s time to select a delivery time, users can instead tap the Pickup tab, select a store location, and choose a pickup slot. Another big difference is that pickup fees currently start at $1.99 for orders over $35 and $3.99 for orders under $35 (Instacart Express customers also get free pickup for orders of $35 or more). Better yet, pickups are not subject to service fees and Aldi says tips are not accepted.
For more on how the complete Aldi Curbside Pickup process works within Instacart, be sure to check out my full review.
My Instacart Experience
Speaking of Aldi, when I decided to try Instacart for the first time, I chose to order from the discount store for a couple of reasons. First, the store is usually pretty busy, so shopping there even under normal circumstances can be a bit stressful. Secondly, since Aldi is known for its low prices, I figured the deals would help offset the Instacart fees I would incur. On that note, while Aldi says that prices on Instacart may be higher than in-store, I personally didn’t notice any major differences — although I can’t say I have Aldi’s pricing memorized.
So how did my experience go? Here’s a recap of each element along the way:
As you’d probably expect, the first step in placing an Instacart order is adding items to your cart. When I started this process, part of me thought my choice to go with Aldi may have made this a bit more difficult since most of their items aren’t name brand. Luckily, however, I found that Instacart’s search feature worked just fine when all I entered were generic item names. Furthermore, if I searched for something Aldi didn’t have, the related items that populated my searches seemed like reasonable suggestions. For example, when I searched “udon,” it listed a couple of other types of pasta — close enough.
Another thing I liked about Instacart’s interface and the process of building an order is that I could easily add items from the search page or tap on an item for more details. Just like in a real grocery store, this extra info includes helpful notes such as the cost per ounce. Additionally, the ingredients and nutritional facts labels are available for some selections so that you can make an informed purchasing decision.
Selecting a delivery time and placing the order
With my cart filled with groceries, it was time to select a delivery time. Apparently I was placing my order at a good time as I was informed that I could have my delivery made within two hours of checking out. Meanwhile, if I did want to select a different time, I could view availability for the next several days and choose a two-hour window. Also important is that, next to each delivery window, the delivery fee was clearly listed.
In my case, every slot I looked at had the same $3.99 fee. However, orders totaling less than $35 have a higher fee, currently starting at $7.99. Again, the size of your order is only one possible pricing factor, but I found that interesting nonetheless.
Something else I learned during this experiment was that there was also a “Fast and Flexible” option that would squeeze in your order whenever there was an available shopper as opposed to you selecting an actual window. Apparently this is a relatively new option birthed out the high demand for the service at this time. Of course, I can’t really speak to how this particular feature works as my shopper was available without issue.
Anyway, after taking a final gander at my order, it was time to pay. For simplicity’s sake, I checked out with Apple Pay. At the time, I partially chose this option because I didn’t think that the delivery service would count as “grocery” on my Amex Gold or Capital One SavorOne cards (leaving the 2% back from Apple Card as my presumptive best pick). However, subsequent experiences suggest that both credit cards do code Instacart purchases as grocery or supermarket. Of course, this could change at any time and your particular credit card may work differently.
Watching the shopping
Prior to placing my order, I was a bit worried about items missing from my order. As it turns out, Instacart has a pretty cool way of easing those concerns as you can see what items your shopper has already grabbed, ensuring that they get everything. And, while I didn’t do it myself, it also seemed you could add last-minute items if needed. Personally, I was glued to the app watching items fall off my list one-by-one — it was oddly fascinating and reassuring.
Substitutions and omissions
As I was enjoying monitoring my shopper’s progress, at one point I noticed that I had a chat message from her (uh oh). She informed me that a couple of the items I wanted were out of stock but offered two alternatives for each of the missing items. After opting for two replacement items, the app updated to have me formally accept the substitution and view the price difference.
Sadly, a few minutes later, she messaged again about another missing item. In this case, I declined alternatives and told her to skip it instead. Sure enough, moments later, a refund authorization popped up for my approval.
It’s important to note that these incidents aren’t Instacart’s fault — after all, they don’t stock the stores themselves. Plus, given the circumstances, I was very relieved that I was able to get as much on my list as I did. In any case, I was really impressed with Instacart’s system for addressing these out-of-stock situations. Not only did the shopper make it easy to assess my options but the app also helped make the swap go smoothly.
Out of curiosity, I did look on Instacart’s site to see what would happen if you did miss these messages from your shopper. Apparently, they would eventually remove them from your list and refund you for them. However, in settings, it looks like there is an option to have your shopper call you before they check out, giving you one more chance to select alternatives. Also, when I was choosing items, I did notice it offered me the chance to select back-ups for certain popular items, so that might come in handy as well.
Once my shopper was on her way out of the store, I was able to track her location akin to DoorDash or Uber. Since the Aldi I ordered from is just a couple of blocks away, she arrived in pretty much no time. Knowing that my haul included four cases of seltzer, I felt bad about making the shopper carry everything up to my apartment, so I offered to help once I heard her approaching my door. This was a little awkward since everyone is trying to keep their distance at the time, but she seemed to appreciate the gesture and we worked around the odd logistics of it all.
And that was that — we went our separate ways and suddenly we had much more food in our household than we did a few minutes earlier. Huzzah!
Reviewing your shopper
Like with other apps of this nature, Instacart gives you the opportunity to rate and comment on your shopper. This is also where you can report (and hopefully resolve) an issue, but luckily I had none. In the event you mess up and want to edit your rating/comments, you can do so by tapping the profile button in the upper left corner of the app, selection “Your orders,” choosing the order in question, and then hitting “View rating” at the bottom. FYI, you can change your tip amount here as well if you’re feeling particularly generous or appreciative.
Final Thoughts on Instacart
I had Instacart installed on my phone for months before I finally gave it a shot — and I could not have been more impressed with the results. Not only was I able to get what I needed but the communication from my shopper was on point and the premium I paid was actually pretty reasonable (even with what I thought was an enhanced tip).
That said, I do realize that the Instacart experience for those living in larger cities may be a bit different. For example, I’ve had friends tell me that they’ve had to wait days to find an available delivery slot, whereas my groceries arrived less than an hour after I placed my order. Meanwhile, I could also see it being a bit annoying if you weren’t available to check your phone when your shopper was at the store, as this is when you’ll need to decide on potential item substitutions.
Although I don’t anticipate using Instacart all that often (except for their Pickup option perhaps), I can definitely understand the appeal. Moreover, while the fees can add up, I would say they are comparable to what you would pay for restaurant delivery through Uber Eats or DoorDash — and I find Instacart to be a better value in that regard. Also, from time to time, I’ve received special offers from Instacart that make the convenience’s price much easier to swallow. For that reason, if you’re on the fence, I’d recommend at least trying out Instacart for yourself.
Also published on Medium.