Is there such a thing as a grocery shopping nerd? If so, I am one. I love strolling down supermarket aisles, comparing prices and ingredient lists and discovering new products.
For some reason my one-year-old has zero patience for this. And I’ve never been a big FreshDirect fan. Luckily, the past year has marked the availability of three different services — Instacart, [company]Google[/company] Express and Amazon’s Prime Pantry — in New York City. I’ve been testing these services for the past several months and have found that they solve many of FreshDirect’s problems, making online grocery shopping an actual pleasure for nerds like me. Here’s how they stack up.
The red-headed stepchild: Prime Pantry
The idea: Buy nonperishable items in “everyday sizes” (like a single can of Pringles or a bag of dog food).
Cost: The service is for Prime members only, who already pay $99/year; delivery of each Prime Pantry box is an additional $5.99.
Availability: Prime members in all the U.S. states except Hawaii and Alaska.
Pros: The prices on available items are very good. A 16-ounce box of Wheat Thins cost $3.88 on Prime Pantry, for instance, while a 9.1-ounce box is $3.89 at Fairway.
While Amazon advises that boxes ship within four business days, my box came faster — I ordered it Monday and it came Wednesday. But that may be because I am near an Amazon fulfillment center.
Cons: Using Prime Pantry requires a lot of knowledge of and patience for Amazon’s various pricing schemes, which seem to be getting more complicated and less convenient.
For instance: [company]Amazon[/company] recently launched its own brand of diapers for Prime members (for Prime members’ babies, I should say), and I wanted to test them (look for my review soon). But I didn’t want to order a giant box of them. My only option for buying a smaller package of the diapers was to get them via Prime Pantry. And that meant that, in order to not waste the $5.99 shipping surcharge be a complete waste, I needed to order a bunch of other things from Prime Pantry to fill my box.
Unfortunately, the selection is limited. Amazon says it will be expanding, but for now there’s often no logical difference between the items that are and aren’t available. You can get a box of cinnamon graham crackers, for example, but not a box of plain graham crackers; lemon-lime seltzer but not unflavored seltzer; Wheat Thins but not Triscuits.
In addition, Amazon’s implication that this is the most cost-efficient to get “everyday size” items isn’t completely true. There were several small items that I couldn’t order through Prime Pantry at all — instead, I could only order them as “Add-on” items to regular orders. Amazon specifies that “the Add-on program allows Amazon to offer thousands of low-priced items that would be cost-prohibitive to ship on their own”; it seems odd that the selections of Prime Pantry and Add-on items aren’t the same.
If you’re in a big city served by Instacart or Google Express — and even if you’re not — Prime Pantry just may not make that much sense to you. It seems a lot more like one of Amazon’s many experiments than a fully-fledged and useful service. You can be part of the experiment, but your mileage may vary.
Runner-up: Google Express
The idea: Shop online for items from physical stores like Costco, Target and Toys “R” Us and get them delivered on the same day. Groceries aren’t the service’s only focus — and that’s a good thing, because Google Express can’t deliver fresh or cold food. So produce, meat and milk are all out.
Cost: Google Express (formerly Google Shopping Express) was a ridiculously good deal in its trial phase — I got my first six months free, with no order minimums, through a deal that’s no longer available. But as the service expands it’s toughening up: Google announced in October that membership will be $95/year or $10/month on orders over $15, with the first three months free.
Areas: San Francisco, Peninsula & San Jose, West Los Angeles, Manhattan, Chicago, Boston and Washington, DC
Vendors: Varies based on city; includes chains like Costco, Barnes & Noble, Walgreens
Pros: Google Express prices reflect in-store sales, while Instacart’s usually don’t. Want to be a master grocery nerd? Divide your shopping list between Google Express and Instacart, using Google Express for non-perishable grocery items that are on sale. I sometimes save a whole $3 by doing this.
Packaging is sensible and not wasteful. A baby gate I ordered from [company]Target[/company] was delivered in its original shrink wrap with no extra packaging; groceries come in plain paper bags.
You can add your loyalty cards to Google Express’s website to earn the same points that you would if you were doing the shopping yourself.
And the trial price — zero for same-day delivery — can’t be beat.
Cons: No fresh food. You can’t do all your grocery shopping through Google Express unless you subsist on granola bars and candy.
Right now, you can only order alcohol through the service if you live in the Bay Area.
Delivery windows are less precise than Instacart’s — you can request a morning, afternoon, or evening delivery window but can’t narrow it down to the hour.
If you want stuff from Costco, you have to be a Costco member.
The winner: Instacart
The idea: “The Uber of…” Okay, you get it. Order groceries from stores online and a personal shopper delivers them to you.
Cost: Starts at $3.99 for two-hour delivery and $5.99 for one-hour delivery when you spend $35 or more. Instacart Express offers unlimited deliveries of two-hour and scheduled grocery orders over $35 for $99 per year.
Cities: Atlanta, Austin, Boulder, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, DC. (Not available in all zip codes in these cities.)
Vendors: Varies based on city
Pros: Lots of grocery store chains are partnering with Instacart as their default online shopping option — which is why you’ll see it promoted in New York [company]Whole Foods[/company] and Fairway stores. This means that by using it you get the best of both worlds — a well-designed, mobile-friendly shopping experience and all of the selection of the best grocery stores. (Compare that to FreshDirect with its clunky interface and limited selection.)
In many instances, you will pay the same prices for groceries ordered on Instacart that you would in the store. Whole Foods and Fairway offer price parity in NYC, for instance, and a company spokeswoman told me the company “would like to be able to offer price parity for all the stores” and hopes to do in coming months.
Instacart is fast. Depending on the store and your location, it’s not always possible to get your groceries delivered within an hour — but I’ve almost always been able to get them delivered the same day. You can also schedule deliveries a day or more in advance.
Instacart relies on personal shoppers, and all of my experiences with them have been great — they shop with care, especially for produce, and with thought. A fresh baguette that I ordered, for example, came with a plastic bag tied around the end that was sticking out of the paper wrapping, to prevent it from drying out. When I ordered two pounds of string beans, each bean was fresh and green; the shopper had picked through them so I didn’t have to.
The “substitutions” feature is one of my favorite parts of Instacart. For each item that you order, you can designate a substitute item in case your first choice is out of stock. You can tick a box requesting that your shopper call or text you about any substitions they’re making in-store, or you can just choose to leave it up to them. On a couple of occasions when both my primary and back-up item were out of stock and I’d requested no calls, the shopper made smart decisions — grilled chicken breasts for grilled salmon, for example.
You can add additional items to your order after it’s placed. As far as I can tell, you can make changes up until your shopper is actually in the store.
Shoppers have almost always arrived within the specified time window; if they are running late, Instacart will email and text you (you can also track your orders from their website and app). In a couple of cases when a shopper ran late, Instacart gave me credit without me asking for it.
Instacart deliveries usually arrive in reusable shopping bags, which you can either keep or give back to your shopper the next time. Sometimes the orders come in the grocery store’s regular plastic shopping bags. But they don’t arrive with the immense amount of packaging that FreshDirect and Amazon Fresh deliveries include.
There is [company]Costco[/company] — a store that until now was off-limits to me as a city resident without a car — and you don’t have to have a membership for Instacart to shop there for you.
It’s easy to tip on a credit card.
Finally, users of the Amex Blue Cash cards, which provide extra cash back on grocery store purchases, should note that American Express has begun coding Instacart purchases as groceries — so you will earn extra points on these purchases the way you would at physical grocery stores.
Cons: Instacart’s prices often don’t reflect in-store sales the way Google Express prices do (see below). It’s not possible to add shopper loyalty or rewards cards.
There’s the rich-person-paying-for-convenience guilt factor, certainly. You see the person who did your shopping for you: They come to your door and give you your groceries. In some instances I’ve carried my daughter to the door with me as if to show that I had a “reason” for not doing the grocery shopping myself. An Instacart spokeswoman told me that shoppers — who are independent contractors — are “paid using a formula based on the number of orders in a shift and the number of items in each order. They can make up to $20 an hour plus tips on busy days.”
I tip 15 percent on every Instacart order and rate all of my shoppers five stars — but I have never had a reason to rate lower.