It’s nearly impossible to follow social distancing protocols in a grocery store.
Arrows showing how to enter and exit aisles, floor markings that delineate six-foot distances in the checkout line, and lengthy wait times for items that may not be available has made the trip to a grocery store far more than a dreaded chore.
Many see it as a nightmare. Grocery store delivery and order pick-up has grown in popularity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as a result.
In the Capital Region, many stores offer online shopping and curbside pick-up of groceries while others allow for third-party services like Instacart to shop for customers. Price Chopper is the only local grocer that has in-house shoppers from Instacart as well as its own team of staff shoppers for online grocery orders.
Instacart shoppers can fulfill delivery orders from numerous other local stores (ShopRite, Aldi, CVS Pharmacy, The Fresh Market, Sam’s Club, Restaurant Depot, Target, BJ’s Wholesale Club and PetCo) while others still have their own online ordering platforms (Price Chopper brands including Market 32, Target, Hannaford and Walmart). Across the board, online ordering app downloads have totaled into the hundreds of millions, with Instacart seeing app downloads grow by 20 times the normal number in New York state.
In late April, Instacart said it planned to add up to 250,000 more shoppers to its service, the company said in a statement posted to its website. (Inquiries directly to the company were not returned.)
That growth stems from the public’s self-quarantine in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and many local residents have turned to the likes of Instacart and others to do their grocery shopping for them.
“I’ve thought about using Instacart for a while. The convenience and time-saving aspect is undeniable,” said Sonia Uddin of Niskayuna. She and her husband started using the service when New York State went on pause and they decided to avoid public spaces as much as possible, despite the fact that she enjoys grocery shopping.
Uddin used to make weekly shopping trips to various stores, but now chooses to make an order large enough for several weeks worth of groceries. “That has changed my outlook on planning meals for a longer stretch of time, being more creative with ingredients and considering which items need to be used first,” she said.
Uddin’s order habits mirror how others have been using online ordering and delivery in the region. Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and customers service for Price Chopper, Market32 and Market Bistro, said that online orders through the Price Chopper website and Instacart app are several times larger than they were before. Price Chopper launched its partnership with Instacart in November 2017 and while online ordering was continuously growing pre-pandemic, it has exploded since mid-March. Delivery orders exceed pick-up orders, with delivery orders now having a three- to four-day wait while pick-up orders usually have a seven-day wait.
“We are adapting to increase the capacity [for online orders] among our own teammates,” said Golub. Price Chopper is training existing employees to fulfill online orders and hiring new employees for that role, as well, and Golub said she anticipates that customers will continue to rely on online orders after the pandemic subsides.
Shawn Keating, of Albany, has been using Instacart since June 2018, while his wife was writing a cookbook. He has placed orders from BJs, CVS, and ShopRite but relies on Price Chopper and Market 32 now. “Since the COVID-19 outbreak I haven’t set foot in a grocery store. Prior to the outbreak I was mostly visiting stores that aren’t available through Instacart like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Fred the Butcher,” Keating said. As a long-time user of Instacart, he has noticed a dramatic increase in wait time for his orders. He pays the $99 annual fee to receive two-hour delivery on his orders, but now even with the membership deliveries can take up to five days. “I’m hoping the demand goes down in the future or there are more shoppers available to reduce the wait time. For now I’m happy with it, it lets me do my part and keep one more person from going out to the store,” he said.
One Instacart shopper who asked to be identified as Belinda has been with Instacart since 2018 and said that hiring more shoppers is welcomed, but moving slowly, and the demands placed on her and her colleagues is overwhelming with seldom time for breaks. Belinda transitioned from a full service shopper (someone who shops at any store and makes deliveries to the home) to an in-store shopper (someone who shops for pick-up orders) within Price Chopper stores and estimates half of the orders she fulfills are for delivery to the home. Part of the lag in fulfilling orders is that learning how to shop for others is difficult. “You don’t think there is much of a learning curve, but there is,” she said, mostly from being able to decipher a customer’s order and how to substitute items if needed.
Despite the high demand for shoppers, Belinda said she does not feel secure in her position. “It’s always possible that a retailer can end their contract with Instacart,” she said, but stays with the job because it allows her to help people and because she enjoys shopping and food. “We are getting more notes from people and it’s clear we are helping.” She enjoys working within Price Chopper stores because she said it is the only store in the area that does not mark up prices on online orders via Instacart. (Mark-ups that she has witnessed, she said, range from 10 cents to $2 per item.)
Belinda said she feels less safe in grocery stores these days, even if she knows risking her own safety inherently keeps her customers out of harm’s way.
Many individual shoppers in the stores are not following safety protocols or are wearing marks, she said, and often bring their entire family to use multiple carts, which can create havoc in the store. People also steal disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer from the Instacart staging area, where orders are bagged and labeled. (The lack of personal protection made available to Instacart shoppers led them to call for a strike in March.)
“The volume of orders will decrease but Instacart will maintain new customers,” Belinda said.
Uddin predicts she will continue to use the service, but wishes online ordering was available through Trader Joe’s and that Instacart would expand to global markets, like local Indian and Asian groceries. Word of mouth will spur on new customers, as well. “I’ve taught my in-laws how to use Instacart and I suspect that now that they know how it works, they will continue to use the service in the future,” Uddin said.
Despite the setbacks of long wait times for orders and glitches in order fulfillment, online grocery ordering shows no sign of slowing down, making how we shop for groceries a “new” normal in our daily lives.
Deanna Fox is a freelance food journalist. @DeannaNFox www.foxonfood.com
How to get the most from your online grocery order: Tips from a local Instacart shopper
- List acceptable substitutions: When you place your order, make a note of things you will accept if your chosen item is out of stock. Will you be ok with ground beef with more fat? Romaine lettuce instead of red leaf? Which yogurt flavors will you be happy with if there are no high-demand flavors, like blueberry and vanilla. (You can also list things you do not want, as in, “any flavor other than peach.”) Be specific to make sure you get the closest order to your original list possible.
- Let your shopper know of any dietary restrictions: If you have a gluten or dairy intolerance, be sure to note that in your order in case a substitution is made by your shopper. Your shopper would rather replace an out-of-stock item with an appropriate substitution rather than leave it being.
- Let your shopper know what your priorities are: Do you shop based on brand, flavor, size or price? If a substitution is required, provide as much information to your shopper as possible. Knowing the psychology of your grocery order and where you place importance can also help your shopper snag deals and discounts for you, when possible.
- Be available to your shopper: Most apps (like Instacart) allow you to communicate directly with your shopper. If they reach out to you to ask about a substitution, be responsive as best possible.
- Leave a review: Your shopper wants to make you happy, so if they did a good job, leave a positive review. Remember, they are trying to decipher your order as best they can, so if you were dissatisfied, be kind in your critique and offer specifics.
— Deanna Fox