Instacart Review: Convenient, Friendly, and Room for Improvement

As a city dweller — one with no personal vehicle (because who needs one in Old Town??) — grocery shopping ranks high up the list of total PITA activities. Grabbing small items, mind you, isn’t much of an issue; but when it comes to cases of pop or water, bags of dog food, or larger bulk-items like toilet paper & paper towels, you’re stuck either buying in small supply through multiple trips (inefficient), asking a friend for a ride (not always convenient), or renting a ZipCar for an hour or two (not cheap). Sure, services like Amazon Prime Pantry offer grocery items shipped to your door — but, only if you’re a Prime subscriber, and the selection can be limited (not to mention, delivery takes a few days).

Admittedly, I was late to the game on San Fran start-up Instacart. Though it’s been in Chicago since 2013, I only became aware of their availability in our city recently (perhaps you need some better outreach, guys?). For me — someone who likes to keep a good deal of bottled Diet Coke/Coke Zero & Diet Sierra Mist in the fridge — Instacart seemed like a no-brainer: none of these things are particularly easy to carry in multiples of any more than two, and my ZipCar-fueled grocery trips were starting to seriously add up financially.

Image via Instacart

A few weeks ago, home sick with a combination bronchitis/sinus infection and low on supplies, I decided to give Instacart a test-drive. Given they offered free delivery on the first order, it was a win/win. I’ve used the service twice since, with good to great experiences in all three instances.

The Good Stuff

In my neighborhood, Instacart offers grocery delivery from Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Jewel, Tony’s, Costco, Stanley’s, and Plum Market — a good selection of stores to choose from. They have both an iOS and Android app, though orders can be made through their web UI as well. The selection available is basically, well, everything that each of these stores offer — from almond milk & produce to garbage bags & alcohol, and everywhere in between.

Instacart iPad app

Delivery can be made in under two hours; though, delivery charges range based on how quickly you’d like your items to arrive (from $7.99 to $3.99, based on each store’s availability and your order size).

Instacart’s notification system is impressive — you can receive a text when your delivery is on it’s way, and another when it has arrived — and there’s an in-app feature to see where your order is in real-time once it has been all purchased. The company has equally stellar customer service, which is critical when you’re relying on third-party drivers and shoppers to handle the brunt of the workload.

Room for Improvement

My only real complaint with Instacart is that the service is not tied-in to the stores’ (what I imagine is an antiquated) inventory system; therefore, there are times when the items you want just might not be available. Unfortunately, all three of my orders have been met with this issue for at least one item on the list. Though Instacart allows you to select “alternative” products as backups for each (or none, if you’d rather just not have an option), there’s not always similar-enough items to substitute; and (at least in my case), you don’t often know this until everything is delivered. I did even, the last order, get one incorrect product as a replacement (though, in fairness, the excellent customer service I mentioned earlier quickly credited me for the item).

This is the real drawback for companies like Instacart & Uber; the reliance on other people’s inventory — whether it’s cars or groceries — to fulfill their customer’s requests (though, it could be argued, this infrastructure built-upon infrastructure model is what makes Instacart & Uber so affordable).

Bottom Line

Would I recommend Instacart to someone in a big city without ready access to transportation? Absolutely. It’s convenient & won’t break the bank. Sure, it could be improved upon (what couldn’t?), but for a bi-weekly or monthly stock-up on some of the larger items, Instacart is a good bet.

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