A Financial Planner’s Review of Instacart Grocery Pick-Up

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David John Marotta and I along with my young daughter have done our respective family’s weekly grocery shopping together since we became neighbors in 2017. We carpool together to the grocery store and move at the slow pace that two adults can move only when they have a toddler in tow. My daughter was 18 months old when we started shopping. She’s 4 and a half now.

The experience has always been homeschooling at its best. We often joke that we could make a weekly thrift and frugality podcast just by recording our conversation while shopping. We laugh at the manipulative grocery store practices and teach my daughter how to compare items and prices effectively and quickly.

Regardless of the grocery store, the layout is designed to help you spend more. Items that make a larger profit or have paid for their placement are displayed prominently. The items with low profit margin or those made by smaller companies without large marketing budgets are often hidden. All the types of one item in the store may not necessarily be in the same section.

On February 18, 2020, we tried a grocery pick-up service for the first time. We decided to do a hybrid approach. Anything where there was little or no discretion in the choice, we put into the pick-up service. Items where discretion can get a better item, we shopped for in the store.

Here are a few observations on the process.

First, it is not abundantly apparent how your shopper gets paid with Instacart. Although they do not tell you, the items you are shopping for have each seen their price increased ever so slightly. So an item that costs $3.15 in the store might cost $3.55 on Instacart. This means that a carefully cultivated grocery list of items will seem more expensive for no apparent reason on Instacart.

Second and despite the first point, I found that my grocery bill was net cheaper with Instacart shopping. How could this be when the items cost more? Simple; I didn’t buy as much food. Although at first glance this might seem like a positive feature, perhaps I avoided impulse purchases or I was able to refine my meal plan to find cheaper options, in my case it was because I did not buy enough food and we were actually hungrier for the week.

I discovered through this process that I normally design my grocery list and meal plan in an hour or less as the mere dinner essentials, but any breakfast, lunch, pantry, or snack items I rely on either memory or having previously put them on my list earlier in the week. For borderline cases, like when the flour is running low but not yet low enough to be put on the list, the grocery store is my second chance to remember to get it.

So in the week that I did Instacart, I forgot to get more apples, which are what my husband eats for breakfast, even though in the store I always remember to pick up a bundle.

Third, although I am a seasoned shopper at Wegmans who knows the layout very well, I still found items in the online search that I have never seen in the store. For example, I sometimes make Pad Thai which uses rice noodles. Before this shopping trip, I bought the Wegmans brand rice noodles which can be found on the Asian aisle. They are expensive, but better than plain pasta in the dish. However, on Instacart, they had two competitor brands of rice noodles listed in the store, one of which turned out to be both cheaper and better. Only after my Instacart shopping experience could I find that brand in the store on the rice aisle.

Fourth, Instacart’s website does not list product ingredients. This means that when shopping for a new item, like these rice noodles, you need to look up the ingredients elsewhere online to figure out what you are getting.

Fifth, another downside is that sizing can be hard. In the store, I know by sight which size ketchup bottle I want to store in my fridge, but how many ounces is it? You may find a ketchup bottle is cheaper per ounce, but will it fit in your fridge? These kinds of decisions require extra effort to resolve.

Sixth, another interesting consequence of grocery pickup is that I finally had the excuse to set up Amazon subscribe and save. With the grocery store prices in front of me, I was able to evaluate which had the better deal. When Amazon had the better deal, I set up the recurring orders I’d always meant to set up.

Seventh, when something isn’t in stock, the Instacart experience really breaks down. Although you can designate alternatives for each item, that is a lot of time and mental effort that might not get used. If you choose not to designate alternatives, your shopper makes substitutions as he or she goes. You have to be watching the shopping online in order to change their decisions. For example, what type of cheese should they get if shredded Swiss is out of stock? Should they get block Swiss, shredded mozzarella, or skip it entirely? It depends on the item and likely requires your input, but they will simply decide without you. As I do not have a smartphone, this process is very cumbersome.

After trying Instacart again a handful of times, I finally decided that in-person shopping was cheaper and more effective for my family. Hopefully my experience and observations can help you make your own decision.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.