My mom introduced me to grocery delivery service, which she started using due to mobility issues. Here’s my take on how Instacart works after using it for three weeks while visiting my folks in rural upstate New York.
I grew up in rural upstate New York. And I really mean rural. We lived 40 miles from a city, and our closest neighbors could be heard by their barking dogs but not seen through the trees.
We had access to one grocery store in the next town over, and my bus ride to school took an hour. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. every morning. I hit the snooze button until 5:20 a.m.
In winter, my sister and I had to factor in time to put on cold weather gear and gingerly walk down our icy driveway. Because the bus driver had multiple kids to pick up on her long daily journey, we had to be on the porch when the bus arrived or we weren’t going anywhere.
My parents still live in that house and don’t see themselves leaving it anytime soon. However, my mother has recently started having mobility issues and struggles with the long trudge through the grocery store.
She could use the motorized shopping carts, yes, but the baskets are not quite big enough to hold her weekly haul, and she’s turned off by that embarrassing beeping noise whenever the cart has to back up.
Fortunately, one of my sisters works at that one grocery store in the next town over I mentioned earlier (since then, an Aldi opened up, though). She recently started noticing more and more shoppers swiping tell-tale credit cards, did some research on how Instacart works, and then mentioned it to my mom.
Shortly after, I was planning for one of my semi-annual familial visits and asked my mom if we could make our usual pilgrimage to a supermarket on the way from the airport to pick up my essential eats. This time, though, my mom told me to just email her my list and she would place an order. I then asked her how Instacart works.
How Instacart works
When I arrived, my mom had only been using Instacart for a couple of weeks. When you sign up, your first delivery is free—you only have to worry about the grocery bill and a tip for your shopper (the person trucking a shopping cart aisle by aisle, picking out your products, taking them through the cashier line, driving to your home, and delivering your order all within a specifically allotted time frame).
Then, after learning even more about how Instacart works, my mom signed up for Instacart Express to waive the delivery fees for purchases $35 or more for a year (you can also just use it whenever you need to and pay a $5.99 delivery fee each time).
The Instacart Express program has a free two-week trial period—again, you just worry about the grocery bill and a tip for the shopper. At the end of the two weeks, you can cancel your membership. If you don’t cancel, you pay a $99 subscription fee that automatically renews annually. 1
If you were to pay the delivery fee each time every week for a year, you would pay Instacart a total of about $300, so the annual subscription is definitely a good deal if you find yourself using Instacart regularly. If you only use it once a month, however, your delivery fees would add up to about $95, so a subscription would cost you $4.
How to get started
To get started placing an order, you just sign into your account and select “Stores.” You’ll then see a list of the stores available in your area. Select the store you want to order from and then start searching for products. Instacart works much like Amazon: find a product, open up the details page, select the quantity, and add it to your cart.
If you change your mind, just go to your cart and select “Remove” next to the offending product. When you check out, you’ll then indicate when you want your delivery made down to the day and within a range of one hour. My mom selects afternoons between 3:00 and 4:00 usually.
During the time I visited, groceries were punctually delivered by 3:15 on the scheduled day. Instacart also keeps track of your orders so that you can pull up a list of all your purchases and reselect them another week.
My mom starts building her list a few days ahead, but you can get deliveries within two hours depending on your order. Oh, yeah, and like Amazon, you can leave items in your cart to go back to later.
Good news on how Instacart works
So how Instacart works in rural areas may differ from what one will experience in more “civilized” regions. My parents are straight-up country folk. That means that, if you arrive to their door delivering groceries, you’re likely going to be roped into a 20-minute conversation about your job, life goals, and where your parents went to school.
Here’s what I found out: the delivery guy that day was named Elijah. He is 25 years old and works at Walmart when he’s not shopping for groceries for soon-not-to-be strangers. He lives less than a mile down the road from my parents, and my dad pointed out his home on our way back from visiting my brother’s farm.
In that talk on the front porch, my parents also drilled him on the technicalities of how Instacart works and this business of buying and delivering groceries. Elijah also mentioned that he often delivers to people who use wheelchairs and wonders why more people don’t take advantage of Instacart.
Considering how my mother only found out about it through my sister’s job, I wonder about the strength of the company’s ad campaign, particularly when targeting seniors and people with disabilities.
How Instacart works for harsh climates
Let’s also get me started on the weather and how Instacart works with that! One of the reasons I’ll never see myself living in upstate New York again is the notoriously temperamental and harsh weather conditions.
I can recall a blizzard in April, mud and slush in May, humidity and frequent thunderstorms from June to September, and the first snow in October. From November to March, the temperatures ranged from sub-zero (as low as -30°C) to the “balmy” 40s (4–9°C).
My mother started her Instacart subscription in the summer, and she looks forward to placing her grocery orders while sitting by the fire, hitting submit, and settling back down in the warmth knowing that someone younger and heartier will be taking care of the rest.
How Instacart works for your wallet
Finally, as an added bonus to how Instacart works, my mom believes that she is actually saving money because she has a tendency to go off list when shopping in person.
In other words, if you’re not in the store yourself, you won’t be tempted to buy things you didn’t plan on getting or items you don’t need. You also won’t be there to try samples and get nudged into buying something unhealthy.
Bad news on how Instacart works
Unfortunately, Instacart is not available in more remote locations. One of my sisters, who is also disabled and not looking forward to winter grocery shopping, lives in the same town as my parents. However, when she tried to sign up for the app, she found out that deliveries were not being made in her particular location. She hopes that changes soon.
How Instacart works for fussier customers is another negative point. If you are particularly fussy about picking produce, Instacart may not be the best option for those types of products. You can, however, make a note on items and indicate substitutions if the product is not available that day.
You can also chat with your shopper through the Instacart app on your phone, but this feature is not available on the browser. I just opted out of ordering avocados, and my dad gets his peaches on the way home from work.
How Instacart works (or doesn’t work) for reusable bags
Another issue I can’t seem to find much information on is the use of plastic bags. When my mom orders from Aldi, she has to pay for each bag that’s used, but not so from the more local supermarket, Tops. However, next spring single-use plastic bags will be banned in the state of New York as is happening in many other parts of the country.
At that point, grocery store customers will need to shop with their own reusable bags or purchase paper bags. I asked Instacart via email whether reusable bags are a possibility for Instacart shopping, especially considering that this type of legislation is already in effect in two states and about to go into effect in an additional six states, including New York.
Here’s what I heard back from a customer service rep (name redacted for privacy concerns):
As you can see from the reply, it looks like not much effort is being made to encourage reusable bags. Thus, I would mark this issue down as a major negative for Instacart. However, as plastic bag legislation sweeps the nation, I think that Instacart will eventually have to address the problem.
Otherwise, it could experience a backlash from consumers as well as competition from other newer companies offering better options that are efficient, cost-effective, and friendly to the environment.2
How Instacart works for the gig economy
The Instacart shopper model is one of the more successful examples of what’s been dubbed the “gig economy” in which anyone can make a quick buck just by opening up an app and accepting a job. That is how Uber, TaskRabbit, DoorDash, and Fiverr, to name but a few, work and how Instacart works too.
Most people who do this type of work love the independence and scheduling freedom. I get it because I’ve been a full-time freelancer for the past six years and have a similar lifestyle. However, many of these companies have been under fire for poor working conditions and unfair wages, and Instacart is not immune.
What about the Instacart shoppers themselves?
First off, each Instacart shopper can only go to one store per customer. That means that, if you order from more than one shop, the order will be split between two drivers. That sounds reasonable especially if some of those items are frozen and need to get from the store to you promptly.
However, guess what else is split between two drivers? The tip. My parents were properly scandalized when they found out that each shopper was only getting a 5% tip and have decided to start rotating their shop purchases. Their solution, in other words, is to mainly order from Tops, something Aldi probably wouldn’t be too happy to know about.
But things were worse, believe it or not, until February 2019. That’s when Instacart announced that it would stop applying tips toward the minimum order of $10. Read more about these improvements to shopper benefits and conditions.
Some positive news for shoppers and customers alike
A company called Dumpling launched a new app this summer in response to unfair and inconsistent conditions in the gig workforce. According to Dumpling, shoppers are considered business owners and are given more autonomy over their model.
What’s good for customers of Dumpling-affiliated businesses is that you can select your shoppers with whom you can build a relationship. Maybe you’ll even trust them to pick out the perfect avocados and peaches. Read more about Dumpling and see if it’s available in your area.
For now, though, until you can access a fairer service or until Instacart treats its workers better, tip your driver well and consider handing a little extra over in cash.
Final verdict on how Instacart works
Although I don’t use Instacart myself, I can see the benefits for my elderly parents, others like them, and the disabled, especially those living in harsher climates.
I spent three weeks visiting my folks, and my brief country stint didn’t mean I missed out on all the usual conveniences of living in a city. I got my organic kefir, natural peanut butter, and fresh produce as easily as I get it out in San Francisco.
So, I hope this little intro to how Instacart works has been useful. In conclusion, I’d recommend checking out Instacart, especially since that first delivery fee is waived. And, if you do, let me know how it goes in the comments!
1Just make sure you have been enrolled in the program before placing an order after completing the free trial period of Instacart Express. My mom had to sign up again for whatever reason.
2Several competitors are already out there offering similar services. That information is beyond the scope of this article, but you can check out the following links to learn more on your own: