Keeping supplied with the basics — food, drink, toilet paper, laundry detergent and kitty litter — can be a challenge to caregivers or persons who must stay at home. I needed and wanted to be with my husband and could no longer make my list and just head for the store.
Early on, I was getting by when family members picked up staples and friends picked up fresh produce which we always seemed to want. They were returning to their homes after helping us set up our home, and I thought I should try alternatives to burdening friends — no matter how willing.
I have long thought that one of the positive and consequential outcomes of the pandemic was the ready availability of delivery services for groceries, supplies and restaurant meals.
I consulted with my friend and cousin who used delivery services during the pandemic. She instructed me on Instacart and Door Dash. I also noted parking lots at Safeway and QFC offered curbside service for orders made online, another outcome of businesses trying to maintain business while decreasing human contact during the pandemic.
Shopping groceries and supplies online especially with delivery turned out to be not only an interesting experience but an eye-opening lesson on something very new to me: the “gig culture” and the businesses that rely on the same for profitability.
Learning the business
I order online Costco and Walmart products. Costco has a contract with Instacart to shop and deliver and Walmart has their own shoppers and contracts for delivery. My experience with both has been good in product selection and delivery.
I preferred curbside service for groceries. I am a veteran coupon-clipper and wanted to be sure that I had the advantage of discounts some of which I received because I was a member of the store’s program. My friends’ willingness to do the pickup allowed me to participate in the program.
I was satisfied with my choices.
One day, for reasons I still do not understand, I could not make online grocery ordering work for pickup. The list was more than I wanted to ask a friend to shop for, so I decided to try Instacart. I signed up for the trial promising free delivery and made a commitment to consider joining at some point. I placed my order along with my store membership number to access discounts as recommended on the website. I received delivery the same day.
It was then my lesson in businesses relying on “gig culture” to deliver their service. Or, I could call it a lesson on how naïve I can be without even trying.
Foolish is as foolish does or doesn’t
The shopper included the store receipt for my items. The amount was significantly less than projected by Instacart. I was not too concerned because Instacart’s website said it adjusts the cost once shopping is completed. The site notes banks do not always get the change for two or three business days. I checked the bank and saw the cost was not adjusted and I contacted the Instacart’s “help desk” through email.
I exchanged emails with Satish, Sai, Rallabandi, Deepthi and twice with Srikanth. They all wrote expressing sorrow for the inconvenience and made attempts to resolve my concern. None of their attempts related to my concern. They kept referring to tips, bag fees and service fees as if I did not understand the difference between product and tips.
Finally, it occurred to me they were not seeing the store’s receipt. I asked my next Instacart Costco shopper/deliverer about my experience. The shopper said it was a mistake for me to have the receipt; that it was against Instacart policy. The shopper said it was policy to mark up product prices to the customer.
Yes, I felt foolish. I had wondered just how shopper/delivery services made their money. Frankly, I would not have given it another thought if I had not seen the receipt. I thought the receipt was all part of the system and I was correcting a mistake.
Now I know better.
In this one instance the cost I paid for the items was 21 percent above what I would have paid in the store. Any store member savings went to Instacart. I also paid the service fee which by now I knew to be unrelated to “free” delivery. I am told by shoppers I have asked that they are paid $7 per trip by Instacart plus tips.
The shopper is part of the “gig culture” which in this case means being an independent contractor who pays all their own expenses, including payroll taxes.
My understanding may be limited but it seems to me the business model takes the best bits from other successful businesses. I see shopper/delivery services as a combination Uber who primarily relies on “gig” workers and Amazon who contracts with vendors for a product price and then establishes online buying and delivery services for the product at a price that gives Amazon a piece of the action.
Instacart calls the product markup a “commission” for selling the product. A key difference is that Amazon offers competitive product prices.
In some ways, the business model is a win-win for everyone. I have mixed feelings about the business model and have more to learn but it appears to offer something for everyone.
The shopper/deliverer wins by having flexible work at will and can make a decent hourly income depending on tips. The shopper/deliverers told me they liked the “gig” because they could work as much or as little as they liked or could. For some it was a second source of income.
The vendor of products can provide a service to customers without an expense to the bottom line. Instacart provides a service to vendors and customers at a profit without the expense of employees.
The customer gets the convenience of online ordering and home delivery. For many who are homebound, it is an essential service.
I am bothered by the lack of transparency in pricing and vague pricing references related to instore prices. I understand paying more, but I want to know how much.
Even in my old age I had to learn again there is no such thing as a free delivery.
Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation and it the author of the award-winning “Women, We’re Only Old Once.” Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.