Is grocery shopping online actually worth it?

Would you trust someone to pick out your produce?

Credit: Instacart / juststock / Getty Images
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In major cities and suburbs alike, online grocery shopping is on the rise. For those of us juggling jobs and kids and activities and more, you can now save time by picking out your groceries online and having it delivered to your doorstep with services like PeaPod, Amazon Fresh, Walmart Grocery, and Instacart. These services do come with a few extra fees that make them more expensive than going to the store, but for many people the convenience is worth it.

A study from the Food Marketing Institute and Nielsen in 2017 found that 23% of American households buy groceries online today and in the next 10 years it’s expected that 60% of all food will be purchased online. That’s a lot of people virtually grocery shopping.

Despite its growing popularity, I’ve never thought of trying an online grocery service before because didn't like the idea of someone else picking my produce. So when a coworker challenged me to try it and see if my fears were correct, I decided to give it a shot.

Letting someone else shop for me is my nightmare

Grocery shopping is my third favorite activity (after cooking and eating, naturally). I love going through the aisles with my list in hand, looking through the items, dreaming up new dinner concoctions, and discovering new and yummy products. Most of all, it makes me feel good knowing that I’m saving money by cooking for myself.

Grocery Shopping
Credit: Steve Debenport / Getty Images
Grocery shopping is my happy place.

As a vegetarian and vegetable lover, my diet relies heavily on fresh produce and my grocery cart is always filled primarily with fruits and veggies. I’m very picky about my produce and like being able to choose a specific size and ripeness for each meal I plan on making. There’s a huge difference between an avocado that’s ready for tomorrow and one that I plan on eating at the end of the week.

That’s why I swore I'd never grocery shop online—the idea of someone else picking out my produce fills me with anxiety. There’s too much that can go wrong, like the shopper grabbing a too-small or too-ripe vegetable. That’s just not ideal for how I shop, cook, and eat, and with the added delivery cost, online grocery shopping does not sound worth it to me.

But for the sake of saving some time during my busy work week, I decided to face my fears and try out Instacart.

How online grocery shopping works

Unlike other popular grocery delivery services, Instacart allows you to choose from a variety of grocery stores in your area rather than just ordering from Whole Foods with Amazon Fresh or Stop & Shop with Peapod. For me, that list included Wegman’s (my go-to at the moment), Star Market, Costco, and even non-grocery stores like CVS and PetCo, as well as Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, of course.

Within the Instacart site, you can shop around for groceries and schedule a time for them to be delivered to your doorstep. They allow you to offer suggestions for substitutions, in case the item you want is sold out. You also don’t need a membership to initially join the service, but if you plan on using it a lot, you can get free delivery on orders over $35 with Instacart Express, which costs $149 a year.

Hitting the virtual grocery aisles

Since Wegman’s was already my usual grocery haunt, I decided to place my first order with them. The Instacart site was easy to maneuver and I could search for specific items or browse different departments like “Produce,” “Dairy,” and “Frozen.” It was obviously much faster than going to the actual grocery store, but it was also easier to keep a budget, since I could see what my bill would be in real time.

Wegmans Instacart Screen
Credit: Instacart
An example of an Instacart screen for Wegman's.

My biggest qualm, though, was that you couldn’t specify what size produce you need or leave any comments for the shopper. If this feature was added, I think it would alleviate some of my anxiety about getting bad produce and make my order more accurate.

A few minutes after I placed my order, I received a text that my shopper has started my order, which immediately had me on edge. I was already nervous about how my produce would come out, and when I was notified that the shopper was in and out of there in less than 10 minutes, it only made me more suspicious of their selections.

My grocery bill came out to be $24.73 for a small order, but because I didn’t reach the minimum to qualify for discounted delivery, the delivery fee was a whopping $9.99. That, plus a 5% tip of $1.14 and 5% service fee of $1.24 brought my actual total $37.10. To avoid these extra costs in the future, I’d need to purchase more groceries.

Inspecting the damage

I scheduled my order to arrive between 5-6 p.m. the same day I placed it, and the groceries arrived at a timely 5:02. I came home to find three paper bags outside my front door. They were not insulated despite containing perishables and frozen goods and it being the middle of summer. I’m glad I got home on time that day so the food didn’t spoil or get snatched.

When I opened the bags, I was just as disappointed as I expected to be. They dry goods and frozen food were just what I wanted and some of the produce was fine, but the rest was way below my standards. One zucchini was small and a little squishy, the eggplant was bigger than I needed, the sweet potato was way too tiny for baking, and the kale leaves were much smaller than I would have chosen. Everything was edible, at least, just not exactly what I wanted.

Bagged Groceries
Credit: samael334 / Getty Images
Your Instacart order will arrive on your doorstep in brown bags.

To see if a different store would be any better, I tried a second Instacart order, this time at Whole Foods because they’re known for “high quality” produce. But for whatever reason, searching for items within Instacart’s Whole Foods section online seemed to be more limited. For example, I could only find a 5-pound bag of carrots when I was certain there would be 1-pound bags available in the store.

I made sure this order cost more than $35, so the delivery fee was only $3.99 this time. It came within the two-hour window I selected, and the produce was a little better this go around. Since the brand of cherry tomatoes I asked for was unavailable, I received a similar product as a substitution. However, they did choose a larger hummus container than I ordered, which made the end cost greater, and two bad avocados that didn't ripen properly (which may or may not have crushed my soul).

Is Instacart worth it?

Fresh Produce
Credit: peangdao / Getty Images
All the produce I wish I could be picking out for myself.

For some people, online grocery shopping is worth it. I am not one of those people. Truthfully, it depends on both your eating and grocery habits. It’s safe to say I will not be using these services again anytime soon, but I can understand why it’s a great idea for people who are looking to save time or don’t have easy transportation to a grocery store.

Other than running into a few missing items, the Instacart site is very easy to navigate. If you can’t find what you’re looking for by browsing, you can use the search option to track it down. Plus, Instacart was great at updating me with texts throughout the process and everything came right on time, even though it could have been packaged better.

My main issue with the service is that you can’t guarantee you’ll get exactly what you want, and after trying it firsthand, my fears were confirmed. The produce is never going to be perfect and you’re gambling with a shopper grabbing the wrong item or the item not being available by the time they start shopping. With added delivery fees, tips, and service fees, it does cost more than going to the store yourself, which frankly wasn't worth the time I saved.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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