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How Does Instacart Work For Customers & Shoppers?

Last updated: January 13, 2022
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Thanks to grocery delivery services, traditional grocery shopping experience has changed, and Instacart is a major reason as to why.

However, despite the service’s popularity, many people still have questions about it.

How does Instacart work?

Is it a service you want to use as a consumer?

What is it like to work for the company, and how much money can you make?

Your complete guide to Instacart starts right now.

How Does Instacart Work? (Overview)

Instacart is a pioneer in the world of online food delivery.

While some aspects of the business are similar to rideshare and meal delivery services, other elements are wholly unique.

How does Instacart work?

Here’s a rundown:

A High-Level Overview of Instacart

Instacart is the largest and most popular online grocery delivery service in North America.

Using the Instacart app, consumers order food, beverages, health products, and other items from the grocery store.

Customers can choose to have their order delivered or set aside for in-store pickup.

The business model is similar to Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb.

There are three distinct entities:

  • User – The customer who signs up for the service and orders food.
  • Shopper / Driver – The person who receives the list of items, selects them in the store, and (sometimes) delivers the order.
  • Store – Instacart has developed partnerships with over 30 major grocery retailers.

The company was founded in 2012 by Apoorva Mehta.

One of the world’s youngest billionaires, he originally developed the idea of Instacart while working for Amazon.  

Who Does the Shopping on Instacart?

There are two different types of shoppers working for Instacart.

Full-service shoppers fill the orders and deliver them to the customers’ homes.

They’ll need a reliable, working vehicle and a valid driver’s license.

Many full-service shoppers also drive for rideshare services or deliver for other foodservice apps, activities which are encouraged by Instacart.

In-store shoppers select the items in the store.

They don’t deliver the orders to customers, so they don’t need their own transportation or even a valid driver’s license.

Both positions are open to a wide variety of people.

The company hired over 250,000 workers in 2020 alone.

Requirements mainly focus on navigating the store quickly, selecting the correct items, and carrying up to 50 pounds at a time.

It’s worth noting that customers are unable to choose a specific Instacart Shopper.

This is a common question we get, so that is important to understand before placing an order.

How Does Instacart Make Money?

The company generates revenue in several different ways.

  • Delivery Charges – The customer pays a delivery fee based on the total costs of the order and the speed that they want it delivered.
  • Grocery Partnerships – They partner with retailers who pay a fee in exchange for marketing and other benefits.
  • Membership Fees – Instacart offers an annual membership that includes free delivery fees.
  • Mark-Up – A few stores increase prices by 15% on items ordered through Instacart. The customer ends up paying these extra fees.
  • Advertisement Placement Fees – Companies pay to increase their visibility on the app with ads and other promotions.

Instacart doesn’t charge stores a commission.

What Stores Can You Shop Using Instacart?

In the early days, Instacart delivered exclusively from grocery stores.

While major grocery chains such as Kroger, Safeway, ALDI, and Giant Food still play the most prominent role, Instacart has expanded into other retailers.

Drug stores and consumer product stores such as Best Buy, Walgreens, CVS, Bed Bath & Beyond, and membership clubs such as Costco, where you can order even if you’re not a member yourself.

Most recently, Instacart partnered with Walmart to directly take on Amazon.

Instacart delivers from Walmart to areas where Walmart doesn’t have stores, such as New York City.

They also started a pilot program for same-day delivery in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Tulsa.    

Where is Instacart Available?

Instacart is available in practically all major and mid-size cities throughout the US.

Signing up for the app will present you with a list of nearby options.

You can also enter any zip code into their Grocery Delivery Finder to see nearby stores.

Instacart is available throughout most major markets in Canada, too, including British Columbia, Alberta, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario.

In some situations, customers who live far away from certain stores may still be eligible for delivery, but Instacart might charge a higher service fee.

How Does Instacart Work for Customers?

vector graphic showing a hand holding a smartphone running the instacart app for how does instacart work post

So how does Instacart work for customers?

Using the service is simple and easy.

First, customers create an account using the app or website.

Once you’ve created an account, your shopping options are available to you.

After selecting a store, you can select items and place them in your cart.

When you’ve completed your order, you’ll schedule the delivery.

Types of Instacart Deliveries

There are two different ways you can get your order.

Instacart Curbside Pickup

With this option, you drive to the store yourself.

Once you’re in the parking lot, you’ll text or call the shopper, and they’ll bring your groceries directly to your car.

Instacart Delivery

You can also have your order delivered directly to your home.

Several options are available, including same-day and even one-hour delivery.

Of course, the sooner you want the items, the higher the delivery fees.

How Much Does Instacart Cost?

Customers are subject to several different fees when using Instacart.

The exact amount of each depends on various factors such as your order total, when you want it, and whether you’re picking it up or having it delivered.

Fees for Grocery Pickup

Some stores may charge a pickup fee.

Although the fee can vary, it’s typically equivalent to the standard same-day delivery fee, $3.99.

Tipping for Grocery Pickup

Opinions on tipping for grocery pickup vary wildly.

You aren’t necessarily expected to tip if you’re entering the store and carrying out the bags yourself.

However, you might want to if your order was large or complicated, or if the shopper made some great substitutions.

You might also want to tip if the person brought the items outside and put them in your car, especially if you ordered anything fragile or heavy.

Fees for Grocery Delivery

Delivery fees start at $3.99 for orders over $35.

That’s the basic price for same-day delivery which, depending on the store, could end up arriving many hours after you placed the order.

Fees increase for anything beyond standard delivery, such as one-hour delivery, deliveries totaling less than $35, and deliveries from membership stores like Sam’s Club and Costco.

Tipping for Grocery Delivery

vector graphic showing instacart tipping - an instacart shopper delivering groceries to a woman standing inside a door and giving the driver cash for the order he is dropping off

Tipping is encouraged but not mandatory.

Customers tip directly through the app and can submit a tip up to three days after delivery.

The entire tip goes to the shopper who fulfilled your order.

The app will automatically suggest a 15% tip which you can adjust as necessary.

Although Instagram doesn’t go into much detail about doing so, you can also tip the shopper in cash.

Some shoppers appreciate this method more due to its directness.

On the downside, tipping in person does mean you can’t receive contactless delivery (called Leave At My Door).

Types of Payment Accepted by Instacart

Instacart accepts many different payment methods, including the following:

  • Major US and Canadian debit cards
  • Google Pay and Apple Pay
  • PayPal
  • China UnionPay

Notably, they don’t accept cash, store gift cards, or international payments.

How Does EBT on Instacart Work?

Electronic Benefits Transfer cards are sometimes accepted as payment.

The individual retailer determines whether or not they take EBT.

If EBT cards are accepted, they will be selectable as payment during checkout.

Otherwise, it won’t be on the payment list.

How to Save Money on Instacart

The fees are one of the most significant negatives for most Instacart users.

Fortunately, there are several ways to save.

Use an Instacart Promo Code

You can find Instacart promo codes on deal sites such as Groupon and in other types of promotions.

Promo codes typically offer you a one-time savings opportunity.

They frequently target new users, although you can also find codes you can use if you already have an account.

Earn Credit Using Instacart’s Referral Program

You can also save if you refer a friend to Instacart.

Log in to your Instacart account and head to the referral section.

You can send out as many as five referrals.

For everyone who signs up, you get $10 in credit.

Your referred friend also gets a free $10 to spend.

Sign Up for Instacart Express

Instacart Express is the company’s subscription service.

For $99 a year, you get various benefits, including free delivery for all orders over $35, a lower service fee per order, reduced fees when ordering alcohol, and more.

The Ordering Process

Ordering through Instacart is easy and intuitive.

You can use their free app on either iOS or Android for your smartphone.

You can also order from their website Instacart.com, which automatically generates a list of nearby participating stores.

Here’s a rundown of the ordering process.

Browsing Food

After selecting the store, you’re taken “inside” where you can start shopping.

You can type the product name directly into the search bar if you know what you want.

You can also search by category, such as “potato chips.”

The app also lets you browse through categories, such as Frozen, Produce, and Health.

Adding Food to Cart

Once you’ve found something you want, simply tap or click on it to move to the next stage.

You can now select additional details about the item, such as quantity, package amount, weight, and other item-specific aspects.

Tap the Instructions button to bring up a screen to write a message in your own words.

For instance, you can specify if you prefer thin-sliced deli meat or under-ripe avocados.

Finally, you can set your preference for substitutions.

The shopper can either let the system decide, you can designate a specific replacement, or you can cancel the order.

Scheduling a Time

You have several options for delivery or pickup.

The standard option is same-day delivery.

Stores have different hours, but typically same-day means you’ll get your order by the evening.

You can also schedule a delivery for a specific time.

The available windows will vary by store.

You might be able to pick a particular time or a broader range of times.

Delivery within an hour is another option.

One-hour delivery typically has the highest delivery fees.

It’s also not always available at every store.

Related: How to cancel an Instacart order

Checking Out

The checkout process is simple.

You’ll review and confirm both your order and address.

Then, Instacart will ask if you’d like to be updated on your order via text.

You’ll then select whether or not you want contactless delivery.

Next, you’ll enter your loyalty card number if you’re an Instacart member.

Delivery

Once the order is complete, you’ll receive a notification that it’s staged.

You should expect delivery soon.

When the driver is on their way, they’ll send you a text message (unless you opt-out of this feature).

If you’ve selected contactless delivery, the shopper will place your packages at your door or wherever else you’ve designated.

With contactless delivery, the delivery person will often send you a picture of the delivered packages.  

Otherwise, they’ll knock on your door.

If you’ve ordered alcohol, be prepared to show ID.

After the delivery is complete, you have up to three days to enter a tip.

Pros and Cons of Instacart as a Customer

While Instacart has many benefits, there are also a few potential issues to consider.

Pros of Using Instacart

  • Convenience – You can skip the trip to the store and have your groceries brought right to your home, saving you a ton of time.
  • Wide Range of Options – The chances are good Instacart works with the grocery store where you currently shop. The app also makes it easy to check out new stores.
  • COVID-Safe – You can avoid the crowds at the store. You can also select contactless delivery at no extra charge for added safety.
  • Same-Day Delivery Available – If you need items quickly, you can order delivery for the same day. In some situations, your items can arrive within an hour.

Cons of Using Instacart

  • Fees – Depending on what you want, and when you want it, delivery and service fees can become substantial. While there are ways to lower costs, you’ll always pay more than traditional shopping.
  • Limitations – While you can provide preferences for substitutions, you can’t direct the shopper in real-time or radically change your order.
  • Increased Costs – Some items cost more when you order them through Instacart.

How Does Instacart Work for Shoppers?

In some ways, working for Instacart is similar to other app-based gig jobs, but there are also some unique aspects not found elsewhere.

How does Instacart work for employees?

Here’s a closer look.

Types of Instacart Shoppers

The company employs two types of shoppers – in-store and full-service.

Both types use the Instacart app as the key point of contact to create a profile, receive orders, and more.

Additionally, both types physically walk through the grocery store, select the items, and bag them.

In-Store Shoppers

As the name implies, these shoppers work inside one store.

They don’t deliver the items to the customer.

Instead, they prepare the order for pick-up or run it out to the customer for curbside pickup depending on the type of store.  

Full-Service Shoppers

Full-service shoppers work across multiple stores.

When they get an order, they drive to the specified store, where they shop, bag, and pay for the items.

Then, they deliver the order directly to the customer.

Full-service Instacart shoppers either deliver groceries exclusively or use grocery delivery to augment their rideshare job.

What Do Instacart Shoppers Do?

Instacart shoppers act as personal shoppers for the customers.

They receive shopping lists, select items, bag them, and, in some cases, deliver them.

A shopper must have excellent reading comprehension, store layout knowledge, and the ability to move quickly.

How Much Do Instacart Shoppers Make?

Wages vary based on many factors, such as when you work, the area you live in, and more.

Plus, the work can be inconsistent at times.

As a general rule, a full-service shopper makes about $7 to $10 per hour.

Tips vary by the customer, but a few dollars are standard per delivery.

If you’re efficient and deliver within a reasonably concentrated area, you can make about $15 to $20 per hour.

The Shopping Process

How does Instacart work for the Shopper once they’ve stepped into the store? Here’s a rundown:

Receiving an Order

After selecting an order, you’ll receive the customer’s complete list.

It shows every item as well as any notes they’ve added.

If you have questions, you can chat with them at any time through the app.

Chat only works when the order is open.

Shopping for the Food

You’ll want to complete the order as quickly as possible, so it helps to familiarize yourself with grocery stores in the area.

As you select each item, you’ll mark it off the virtual list.

Paying for the Food

Shoppers pay for food with an Instacart Payment Card.

It’s essentially a prepaid debit card managed by the company.

You can only use the Payment Card for items purchased for customers.

You can’t buy your groceries, gas, or anything else with it.

Delivery (Curbside and Home)

If you’re preparing for curbside delivery, you’ll place the items in a staging area.

When the customer contacts you through the app, you’ll bring the groceries outside to them.

If you’re a full-service driver, you’ll pay for the groceries, take them to your car, and then deliver them to the customer.

The app will provide directions or you can use a different GPS program if you prefer.

When Does Instacart Pay Shoppers?

Shoppers have two payment options.

You can sign up for direct deposit, where money is deposited weekly.

You can also get paid instantly for each order, with your tips for the day arriving within 24 hours.

Instant payments are only available after you’ve completed five batches.

Is it Worth it to Use Instacart as a Customer?

Yes, Instacart has many benefits for families and individuals.

It’s convenient, easy to use, and helps save you a ton of time.

Plus, you can avoid large crowds.

Even though the service does increase the cost of your grocery order, many people feel they benefit overall from increased time and decreased hassle.

Is it Worth it to Use Instacart as a Shopper?

Yes, Instacart also has lots of benefits for anyone looking for flexible gig work.

You can make good money, especially on large orders, while still having lots of flexibility in your schedule.

Also, Instacart shoppers generally feel the company provides excellent customer service if any issues arise, especially compared to other gig companies.

Final Thoughts

Instacart is a major force in the world of grocery and retail delivery, and it’s easy to see why.

They offer customers an easier, faster alternative to navigating a crowded grocery store.

Plus, they provide flexible work in the store and for delivery drivers.  

Grocery stores will never be the same – and customers, store owners, and gig workers couldn’t be happier!

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