Here’s How It Works (Plus the Pros and Cons)

The concept behind Instacart is simple — same-day grocery delivery and pickup. 

The service has expanded since its founding to include modern grocery stores such as Whole Foods and other stores such as Petco, CVS Pharmacy and local liquor stores (state laws abiding). 

But is Instacart worth it? Here’s how it works, along with some honest reviews from users who shared what’s good — and what’s not so good — about the platform with us. 

How to Get Started With Instacart

To get started, download the Instacart app (available for iPhone and Android) to your smartphone. If you don’t have a phone, you can still access the service at the Instacart website. You can set up your account with an email address or through a Facebook or Google account.

Once you make your account, you can plug in your zip code to see which stores use Instacart in that area. For example, I live in Cheyenne, Wyoming, so my options were Rocky Mountain grocery store chain King Soopers, as well as Safeway, Natural Grocers, Sam’s Club, Albertson’s and Petco — all retail chains that can be found across the United States.

To make an order, first select “delivery” or “pickup” below the search bar at the top of the home page, and then choose your store. You’ll be taken to a new page with several featured savings at the top. 

A common fear among people who are new to Instacart is that they may not be able to use coupons, but the service does allow them — as long as they’re not physical coupons. 

Instacart will honor coupons found at the top of that page or in the expanded “Savings” section. To use one of the digital coupons available on the Instacart app, click the “Apply Coupon” button below the item price and wait for the savings to go through.

How to Shop With Instacart

To fill your cart, use the search bar at the top of the page to find specific items. You can also browse sections like “Popular” or “Produce” on the store’s Instacart home page. Every item is accompanied by a photo, and under the name is the price and weight of the item. 

Choose the quantity of an item that you want, then click “Add to Cart” and continue on with the process until you’ve filled your cart with that week’s needs. 

Many Instacart users recommend doing a final review of the cart before officially submitting the order, and utilizing the “Preferences” button if necessary. This function tells the Instacart shopper what item should be swapped for the item you originally chose if your first choice is out of stock, as well as any special instructions for that item (such as specific coloring or hardness of produce). 

How to Check Out With Instacart

Due to high demand related to the pandemic, many Instacart delivery orders now carry a minimum price. When I checked the app on a recent Sunday afternoon, it was only accepting delivery orders that added up to a minimum of $35. Keep this in mind when choosing between the delivery and pickup options, particularly if you’re on a budget that might not allow for grocery delivery. 

Once you review your cart, if you’ve selected delivery, you’ll be asked to enter your home address and zip code. You’ll have the option to fill out the “instructions for delivery” section, which is useful for people who are self-isolating or in quarantine and who need to ask the shopper to leave their order somewhere specific.

After you confirm your address, you’ll be asked to choose a delivery time. The “Fast & Flexible” option is now listed at the top due to high demand, and choosing this option means your order will be taken by the first available Instacart shopper, and you’ll be notified when an estimated delivery time is available. This option ensures your order will be filled by the next day at the latest.

The alternative to “Fast & Flexible” is choosing between nine two-hour time windows, starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m. The delivery fee is always $3.99.

Pro Tip

The app also has a calendar option, so if you aren’t interested in same-day delivery, you can choose any day in the next calendar week. 

After you select a time slot, you’ll be asked for your phone number and credit card information. This is also when you can add a tip for their delivery driver. Instacart automatically suggests a 5% tip and will calculate that for you, or you can click “Change” and input your own tip amount.

Before you finally place your order, you’ll see a price breakdown that details the subtotal (based on the sum of every item’s price at the selected store), the delivery fee (always $3.99), a service fee (which, for the sample order, was $4.07) and an estimated sales tax (in this example, it was $4.45). 

Pro Tip

If you have a special promotion code, don’t forget to click the “Add promo code” button, which is located right above the “Place order” button. 

Right now, it’s common for stores to be out of certain items. Instacart shoppers communicate with customers via the shopper app, so after you place an order, keep checking your phone in case your shopper tries to ask which item to substitute for another. Even if you specified a second choice under the “Preferences” section, it’s possible that item will also be out of stock, so be flexible and stay in communication with your Instacart shopper.

Instacart Express

Instacart Express is the app’s membership service, which costs $99 for an annual membership or $9.99 per month, billed on the same day. 

The service’s main perks are unlimited free delivery on orders of $35 or more and additional savings accrued by avoiding the higher fees non-members face during peak grocery delivery service hours.

The jury’s out on whether a membership is worth your money — those interviewed for this story had a wide variety of opinions — but overall the sentiment was that busy people, particularly those with immunocompromised loved ones, should consider the monthly option if they think they’ll use it weekly during this pandemic.  

Is Instacart Worth It? Users Share the Pros and Cons

The larger question remaining is whether Instacart is worth using at all. 

Sarah Moore of St. Louis, Missouri said yes — particularly right now during the pandemic.

Moore started using Instacart in December 2018 when her commute home from work was about 45 minutes. She felt drained after the long drive every day, and found it particularly difficult to muster up the energy to go grocery shopping when she just wanted to relax at home, so she decided to look for a grocery delivery service.

So, she started ordering her groceries on Instacart before she left for work, and they’d always arrive within about 30 minutes of her return home. She’d accidentally signed up for the membership service, but she found it worthwhile and decided to continue until the one-year mark.

By the end of 2019 her work commute was much shorter, so she canceled her membership, but just last month, Moore started using Instacart again — though more sporadically, and without a membership — to avoid grocery stores during the coronavirus crisis.    

“Instacart has overall been great for me,” Moore said. “The price is higher for groceries, but especially right now, I think it’s worth it.”

Moore’s only complaint was something she’s noticed particularly of late: moldy produce. She chalked it up to low selection related to stockpiling, but added that she’d rather not pay for produce at all if it’s not going to be edible.

Nena Smith, of Cheyenne, Wyoming, agrees. She’s using Instacart out of necessity during the pandemic, but yearns for the day when she can go back to picking her own produce. 

“Something that is difficult for me to contain is my bad character, and (even) more when they do not know how to choose fruits and vegetables,” she said with a laugh. “Now, when I open the bag, I see my cilantro, tomatoes, avocados, grapes, bananas and more crushed because they pile it up with cans or other heavy products.”

Tara Jewell, of Chicago, Illinois, has used Instacart on and off for nearly two years. As a stay-at-home mother of two who works as a freelance writer on the side, she originally thought of it as a convenient luxury to use when she was home with both kids and also had to deal with weather or illness.

For Jewell, the main drawback has been the money she has to allocate for grocery delivery. Using Instacart is much more expensive than doing her own grocery shopping, especially as a family on a budget. 

Now, however, she said the benefit of avoiding the grocery store far outweighs the higher cost.

“I admit I feel a level of guilt paying someone else to take the risk for me; but with a first responder for a spouse, I am constantly exposed to the virus,” she said. “I think it’s best for me to avoid trips to the store at all costs, so I am not a potential threat to more vulnerable people who have no choice but to go to the store.”

When it comes to Instacart’s customer service, Moore said anytime she’s had an issue, the customer service number was easy to access and the help center quickly resolved the issue with her order.

Niki Kottman is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.

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