INSTACART: DEAL OR STEAL

The Cost of Comfort

If you live anywhere in the United States, chances are you have heard of and probably used Instacart. The personal shopping service began as a grocery shopper sometime in 2012. Since then Instacart has expanded its footprint to include wholesale clubs like Costco, pet stores, and pharmacies among others. My own on-and-off relationship with the company began soon after their 2015 Miami launch. A free trial failed to convince me of the value of subscribing. Over the next few years, I occasionally justified the $3.99 per order fee. But the penny pincher in me could never rationalize the monthly cost + product markups and tips.

Then in late 2019, my father became seriously ill, and tasks like grocery shopping became difficult for him. I signed up for a monthly $9.99 membership. With 1200 miles between us, the added cost seemed insignificant compared to the reassurance of knowing that he could get the things he needed easily. A few months later the pandemic set in and I committed to an annual membership. Around October 2020 he lost the ability to eat independently. I decided to let the membership run its course. After another year or so of on-again, off-again use Instacart emailed me an irresistible offer in 2022.

Welcome to the Club

Like my father, there are many people for whom Instacart is a necessity. The ability to get what you need in a timely manner, from the comfort of your living room is truly priceless. Instacart can be used with or without a membership. Non-members pay $3.99 per order plus fees and tips. Members pay anywhere from $9.99 per month to $99 annually. A great savings if you use the service more than twice monthly. Either way, there is a $35 minimum spend per order.

Many local grocery stores including some that partner with Instacart have their own in-store shopping service. Orders can be scheduled for pickup and delivery and prices are generally less than Instacart. Mark-ups are minimal and many honor store and manufacturer coupons.

According to the Instacart site, the prices are set by the merchant. Whoever sets the price does not like their customers very much. In general, markups hover around 25% for many things. I have also seen a 40% upcharge and I have seen the occasional free item. Not long ago I paid $55 for a $40 case of Restaurant Depot chicken. Worth it because I saved the time needed to complete a last-minute order. Not worth it as a sustainable shopping option. Still, it is a better deal than using a wholesaler like Sysco which has a ridiculous pricing model.  

Last but not least. I use a lot of produce. And Instacart shoppers are terrible at selecting produce. For chefs like me, the appearance of the food is just as important as the taste. And bad produce is never a good thing. I have received strawberries with mold right on top, wilted herbs, and ripe bananas for green bananas.

Delivering Value

All things considered, Instacart is a good service that fulfills an essential need. Especially for folks who cannot or do not want to spend the time in a grocery store. There are occasional service delays, but overall timeliness is very good. Depending on your needs and location, there may be better more cost-effective options.
For others, Instacart is a convenience. I fall somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, the majority of my food purchases are for work and Instacart shoppers are less than attentive to the food they procure. Especially the produce. Customer service is very responsive when issues are addressed. Which is why I will still use them in a pinch. Sure, there’s room for improvement but who’s perfect?  

*Instacart shopping is embedded into my published recipes so I may earn a commission when you purchase using these links.

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