The COVID-19 pandemic changed a great deal within the world of tech and lifestyle.
One of the most striking changes it wrought was in the world of online grocery delivery services.
Programs like Amazon Fresh and Instacart used to be niche products used primarily by the uber-wealthy, but now a much wider world has become accustomed to grocery shopping using online platforms.
Given their prominence, it’s worth taking a closer look at two of the most popular grocery pickup/delivery options on the market right now: Instacart and Amazon Fresh.
The two work very differently, but at the end of the day operate towards a very similar goal.
In this piece, we’ll cover the differences between the two services, the similarities, and what advantages each service has over the other so you can pick the best grocery delivery service for your needs.
Instacart vs Amazon Fresh: An Overview
Before we start comparing them, we need to identify exactly what these products are.
They both function in unique ways, though they are also both quite effective.
What Is Instacart?
Instacart is a grocery delivery and virtual shopping company that operates in select cities in North America.
It was first founded in San Francisco by an entrepreneur and former Amazon employee named Apoorva Mehta.
How Does Instacart Work?
The foundational idea behind Instacart is to put the often-tedious work of going through the grocery store and finding things to purchase in the hands of their shoppers.
Once the shopper has bought the items (using a special credit card from the company), they bring them directly to the customer via car or bicycle or place them in a location for customer pickup.
The customer identifies the goods to be purchased by going through Instacart’s proprietary app (available both on mobile and in browsers), choosing a participating grocery store, and then choose the items they want to purchase from that store.
Once the customer has chosen their items, they will order, at which point the app will begin searching for an Instacart shopper to take on the job.
The customer can maintain contact with the shopper throughout the process in case of any issues with the order.
Finally, once the transaction is complete on Instacart’s end, the customer is charged the total cost of the order, plus delivery fees and tips.
An Example Instacart Order Flow
Here is an example of that process.
You log on to the Instacart app and choose a local participating grocery store – let’s call it Sally’s.
Once you select the store, the available Sally’s inventory pops up on your screen, allowing you to go through and choose the items you want.
You order milk, eggs, and a loaf of rye bread.
Once the personal shopper starts shopping, they find the milk and eggs, but the store is out of rye bread.
They send you a message through the app asking if you would prefer whole wheat or white bread instead of rye, or if you would just rather skip the bread today.
Once they check out the items, you are charged for what they purchased, as well as a delivery fee and tip.
Suggested Read: How does Instacart work?
What Is Amazon Fresh?
The story behind Amazon Fresh is very different from the story behind Instacart.
Because it has arisen within Amazon’s existing operations, Amazon has had the opportunity to roll it out in slow, targeted ways, gradually adding features and locations.
All this gradual work has come together to build the virtual grocery behemoth that it is today.
The subsidiary first launched in 2017 under a unique sort of delivery/pick-up model that the company soon abandoned.
They replaced it with a different way of approaching things, dubbed Fresh Direct.
Here, they simply added groceries to their existing Amazon platform, allowing people to grocery shop in the same way they would shop for other items on the website.
They rolled this out slowly, feature by feature and zip code by zip code.
In 2020, the company planned and opened in-person stores for the first time, transitioning from a purely online model to one that merged the virtual and the physical.
A store in this program is known as an Amazon Fresh Marketplace.
These physical stores have a great deal that sets them apart, notably their unique way of handling checkout.
Many of these stores allow you to scan a QR code when you enter, pick up your items, and then leave without waiting in a checkout line.
Now, Amazon Fresh encompasses both in-person grocery stores and virtual grocery ordering.
This piece will primarily deal with the virtual component since that’s the primary aspect that compares with Instacart.
How Does Amazon Fresh Work?
Amazon Fresh is much less complex than Instacart in its workings – or at least it is much more familiar.
Rather than working on top of existing grocery store infrastructures, it simply exists as a grocery store of its own that you can order from virtually.
Since Amazon already has a system for highly efficient delivery, the only thing that they needed to add to supply groceries was a system to make delivery of perishables possible.
Once they had warehouses capable of storing perishables in a given area, they soon could deliver those perishables.
Much like other grocery stores, Amazon Fresh also produces proprietary items like its Fresh brand meal kits, produce, and baked goods.
In short, Amazon Fresh is effectively a virtual grocery store in its own right, while Instacart is a service that allows you to order online from existing physical grocery stores.
Instacart vs Amazon Fresh: Who Does It Best?
Now that we’ve explored how each service works, we can figure out which one is better for the customer at each level.
Instacart is a slightly better option for availability, though there is some contention here.
Since Instacart takes advantage of the existing stores in a given area to provide its available supply, you’ll have access to a variety of items that may connect to your specific community.
As a result, you’ll have an easier time accessing locally-grown produce and unique craft goods through them.
Amazon Fresh, on the other hand, has a much more stable inventory.
Because it is centralized, you won’t have the specificities and local quirks that you have access to through Instacart.
Instead, you have access to the whole catalog that Fresh has available in your area at the same time.
With Instacart, if you want to purchase items from more than one store, you need to do a separate order for each store.
So even though its overall variety is likely more substantial than Amazon Fresh’s, you almost certainly have access to a wider swath of items within a single order from Amazon Fresh.
Amazon Fresh only uses one kind of store – itself – even though it partners with several other brands of food manufacturers.
So when it comes to stores, it has little competition with Instacart, which offers food from over 70,000 stores across 5,500 cities.
As discussed above, an advantage in a breadth of stores doesn’t necessarily mean an advantage in quality or availability.
On the question of deals, both platforms must be considered relatively equal.
There isn’t a way to find hard data on which one offers better or more frequent deals.
But even further, the two models are so thoroughly different that it would be very challenging to find points on which to compare them.
Instacart has two types of deals: deals through an individual store and promotions through their website.
The latter kind of deal typically exists around free or reduced-cost delivery, which are almost exclusively limited to non-members since members enjoy free delivery on most orders.
But that begs the question, does Instacart mark up food prices?
As for in-store deals, individual retailers set prices and promotions through Instacart separately from price-setting within the store.
Certain deals and promotions may be available within the store that is not available through the Instacart platform.
Amazon Fresh has primarily one type of deal – the standard promotions you would expect to find within a local store.
But it has those deals reliably and consistently.
There isn’t a clear winner for customer service between these two programs.
Amazon Fresh tends to provide a more consistent experience, while Instacart has more opportunities for both positive and negative service interactions due to its greater individualization.
With Amazon Fresh, there is no personal interaction required.
You are simply purchasing a series of items from a distributor.
This has all the benefits and drawbacks of impersonality – it’s a generally more efficient way of going about things, but you certainly won’t undergo a memorably relational experience with someone.
With Instacart, on the other hand, you do need to navigate the inefficiency of working with a human person who is going through the grocery store on your behalf.
This can lead to missed items and interpersonal confusion more often than in the much more procedural version that Fresh offers.
But this also allows for moments of exceptional service that you couldn’t get otherwise.
At the end of the day, most people likely prefer reliability to only a possibility of excellence when it comes to grocery delivery, so Fresh is probably a better option here.
There is no solid way to compare prices between the two outlets since there is so much variation from place to place.
Instacart’s prices depend entirely on the prices of the individual retailer, while Amazon Fresh’s prices are determined more centrally through direct negotiation with manufacturers.
Amazon Fresh beats out Instacart when it comes to delivery fees with little question.
Both services have a similar pricing structure on the surface – orders over $35 ($50 in some locales for Amazon Fresh) have no delivery fee.
That is only true for members of Instacart Express in Instacart’s case, but as we’ll discuss below, shopping at Amazon Fresh is limited to Prime members, so Instacarts limited free delivery should not count against them here.
That said, service fees and tips do count against the service.
Several fees accompany any given Instacart order, but you will always have to pay a service fee in addition to your existing delivery fee.
And it is always polite to leave a tip when you use Instacart, but some may find this social expectation a significant cost burden.
That said, for others, the opportunity to tip your shopper through Instacart may be an advantage – it is a beautiful thing to be able to thank the people who help you out in a very concrete way.
When considering memberships, Instacart is firmly ahead of Amazon Fresh.
This is using their membership subscription which they call Instacart Express.
There’s one primary reason behind this: Fresh requires you to have an Amazon Prime membership before you can use it, while Instacart can be used without a membership and just reduces (or eliminates) many of the fees mentioned above.
Further, if you want to use Amazon Fresh at all, you need to pay for the whole of Amazon Prime.
That means that you’re paying for all the other benefits Prime gives if you just want to order groceries through Fresh.
Instacart vs Amazon Fresh: Differences
The primary difference between the two services lies in their different focuses.
Instacart focuses on using personal shoppers to navigate the existing world of grocery stores, while Amazon Fresh operates as an independent store.
Instacart vs Amazon Fresh: Pros and Cons
Pros of Instacart vs Amazon Fresh
As we’ve discussed, Instacart has clear superiority when it comes to stores and memberships.
On the other hand, Amazon Fresh is the frontrunner when it comes to pricing and delivery fees.
Beyond that, there is so much variance between the two that it’s hard to talk about which one is better.
But there are some clear themes of advantages that run throughout these different categories.
Instacart has the benefit of significant individualization.
Because it works through existing grocery infrastructure rather than creating its own, it has a wide variety of different availabilities and local grocery store access.
Amazon Fresh, on the other hand, works on a much more standardized level.
That leads to greater efficiency overall and in some cases wider availability.
Instacart vs Amazon Fresh: Cons
The cons of each service are in many ways the inverse of the pros.
The individuality of Instacart leads it to be limited in some ways and potentially inefficient in others, while the standardization of Fresh prioritizes efficiency to the exclusion of any kind of local distinctiveness.
Instacart vs Amazon Fresh: Winner?
At the end of the day, there isn’t a clear winner between Instacart and Amazon Fresh – it fully depends on what you want your grocery ordering process to look like.
If you want something that maximizes a smooth, streamlined process with maximum efficiency and minimal hiccups, Amazon Fresh is probably the best bet for you.
But if you prioritize the individual quirks of your particular community, for better or worse, Instacart is a superior option.
Because Instacart allows you to connect with your local stores and retailers, there is much more room for you to experience the culinary beauty of your specific area within it.
Is Instacart Worth It?
Instacart is worth it, especially if you want to plumb the depths of the different grocery options your area offers without having to undertake the hassle of continuously visiting new grocery stores.
Is Amazon Fresh Worth It?
The answer to this question fully depends on whether or not you are already an Amazon Prime member.
If you do, then it is probably worth it to go with Fresh over Instacart.
If not, it likely is not worth it to use instead of the other options on the market.
At the end of the day, a membership with Instacart is primarily useful if you want to take advantage of your local offerings, while a Fresh membership is best if you desire efficiency above all else.
Still confused about which to pick? Check out our Amazon Fresh vs Whole Foods guide.