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How Does Instacart Work? A Guide to the Grocery Delivery Service

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In less than a decade, Instacart gone from a niche grocery delivery service available only in the Bay Area to one of the fastest-growing companies in the country.

While you may have heard the name of the app or seen Instacart shoppers at work in your local grocery store, you may also be wondering how Instacart works.

In this article we’ll take a deep dive into the history of the company, look at its business model, demonstrate how to use the Instacart app, explain how personal shoppers find what you’re looking for (and how they’re paid), answer questions about delivery time, and answer other questions people have about the app.

This will be your one-stop shop for understanding the Instacart service and how it works to get food from grocery store shelves to your front door.

Let’s jump right in.

A History of Instacart and Business Model

Instacart was started by a former Amazon employee who wanted to take what his previous company was doing with books and home goods and apply the model to grocery shopping.

Founded in the Bay Area in 2012, the grocery delivery company quickly expanded to major cities across the rest of the United States, including Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

In 2017, the service also expanded into Canada, with the opening of a Toronto location.

Instacart is now available in 1,200 cities in 25 states and 16 Canadian markets, and in 2016 the company announced a major investment from and partnership with Whole Foods.

The business model was simple and has remained consistent through Instacart’s short but meteoric history:

Let people browse the goods available in local grocery stores and pharmacies on an app, place orders, let personal shoppers go and collect the goods and pay for them, and then have a delivery driver bring the groceries directly to the user.

What has changed quite a bit in the company’s history is the pricing method.

At the beginning of Instacart, personal shoppers would simply go into stores, buy items at retail value, apply a 10 to 20 percent markup, and deliver them.

As the business grew, however, it began to partner directly with grocery stores and allow users to buy items at retail value, then pay a small delivery fee.

The fee is currently $3.99 per delivery, unless you are an Instacart Express member – more on that shortly.

How to Use the Instacart App

The Instacart app is available for free on iOS and Android and is the way most people shop with Instacart.

(You can also shop with their website, Instacart.com, which has a similar interface.)

The app works by using your location to identify local stores around you that work with Instacart.

You can enable your location by either allowing them to access your location services within your phone or by entering your home address.

(You’ll need to provide them with your home address eventually for delivery service.)

Once the app has registered your location, it will pull up a list of local grocery stores and pharmacies available in your area that partner with Instacart.

(They aren’t just limited to grocery stores either – in some markets, Instacart delivers from Petco.)

On your app it looks like this:
How Does Instacart Work? Screenshot of grocery store options
Once you’ve selected the store you want to look at, you’ll next be taken to a screen where you can start to shop.

Instacart allows you to search for items, or just browse by category as you would at a normal grocery store.
How Does Instacart Work? Screenshot of coupon savings
Tapping on an item will bring you to a new screen which will allow you to select the amount of that item you want, either by weight or package amount (depending on the product).

You will also be able to “favorite” the item, which makes it easier the next time you shop to quickly find the items you want to add to your cart, look at related items, and provide instructions for your shopper. (More on that shortly.)
How Does Instacart Work? Screenshot of avocado in shopping cart
Find the items you want and place them in your cart.

When you’re feeling good about your order, tap on the shopping cart icon in the top right corner to review your order and head to checkout.

When you are reviewing your cart, you can also provide instructions for the shopper about individual items.

To do that, tap “instructions” underneath the item, and you’ll be taken to a new menu.

Once at the instructions menu, you’ll be able to provide detailed notes for your shopper.

For example, if you prefer your avocados on the under-ripe side, you can tell the shopper to make sure they’re nice and firm.
How Does Instacart Work? Add special instructions
Lastly, you’ll also be given the opportunity to select what the shopper should do in the event that the grocery store is out of the item you want.

The app gives you three options: Find the best match, pick a specific replacement (you’ll then be taken back to similar items which you can select from), or cancel the item altogether.

Once you’re happy with your order, simply tap “Checkout” at the bottom of the screen.

At the checkout page, you’ll be able to review the price of your order, confirm your home address, and most importantly – set the delivery time.

Some markets and stores give you more delivery options, including the option to get a rushed one-hour delivery for a higher fee.

Most allow you to set a delivery time within two hours, or schedule it in the future.

(Instacart’s same-day delivery option is what sets it apart from competitors like Amazon Prime.)

Lastly, you’ll choose your payment method.

Instacart works with Apple Pay on iPhones, but also works with major credit cards and debit cards on all platforms.

How Personal Shoppers Find the Right Stuff

Instacart shoppers are able to quickly and efficiently find your items because they are, by definition, professional shoppers.

Pairing you with a full-service shopper not only lets you find the best items but gives you someone who knows the stores intimately.

Their knowledge of the stores allow them to quickly navigate to find the items you want, and as pros in the field they know to check expiration dates, find suitable replacements for missing items, and where to look for additional stock.

On top of all that, the app gives you the freedom to insert in personalized instructions for every item in your order (including what to do if it’s out of stock), so the shoppers will not only know how best to navigate the grocery store, they will know exactly how you prefer certain items.

As for how they work for the company, personal shoppers and delivery drivers for Instacart are given the option in many markets to work as independent contractors or as part-time employees of the company.

To learn more about working as an employee of Instacart, read our article on the subject.

Other Questions

How Are Fees Applied?

There is a service fee of $3.99 per order when you order using Instacart.

This does not include a tip for your driver.

You can save quite a bit using the app.

First-time users can sign up with this promotional link to save $10 off their first order.

And for existing customers, coupons also allow you to save on the store price.

To see coupons available for each store, use the coupon tab at the bottom of the screen when reviewing items.

Some coupons are special for Instacart users, and used smartly, can save you just as much and justify the service fee.

The other way to save on service fees is to get an Instacart Express membership.

What Is the Instacart Express Membership?

Instacart Express is their premier-tier membership, which gives users unlimited free delivery on orders of $35 or more with a $99 annual membership fee.

(You can also select to pay a $9.99 monthly fee.)

They also offer a 14-day free trial to try out the service and see if you like it.

What Stores Work With Instacart?

Every market is different, but major brands have partnered with Instacart, including CVS, Whole Foods, Costco, Publix, Safeway, Kroger, and many, many more.

If you have more questions, learn how you can contact Instacart to get an answer.

Groceries to Your Door

Instacart works by allowing you to pair with a personal shopper and get the food you want delivered to your door.

The app has grown quickly by partnering with major grocery chains and offering convenient delivery, saving people time and stress with their grocery shopping.

With an Express membership and coupons available, the app can be a cost and time-effective way to get your shopping done.

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