Are Online Grocers Worth It?

In and out as quickly as possible: That's always my goal with grocery shopping. But it's rarely the reality. All sorts of things contribute to my shopping fail, including waiting until the last minute, crowded aisles, and tired kid co-pilots. Ultimately, the very "busyness" is what turns me off—remembering my reusable bags, trying to stick to a list in the face of more tantalizing options, and the other bustling shoppers clogging the aisles.

So when I heard that online grocery-delivery services are booming to the point that they might actually be practical to use, I was like, "Yes! Sign me up!" For me, time really is money. If I can save time, a little surcharge is well worth it. But how much time would I save, and what premium would I pay? And who really delivers to my neighborhood?

Where they do (and don't) go

The online grocery-delivery business is growing fast: It's 3.3 percent of total U.S. grocery spending (a $500 billion industry). But that doesn't mean there's a service in your area today. Amazon Fresh, Peapod, FreshDirect, Walmart, and Safeway are a few that are not available in my Atlanta area; Instacart, Schwan's, and Netgrocer are. You'll have to check each site to see if they can deliver to you.

You'll also want a service that offers the flexibility you need. Some deliver only when you're home or if there's a doorman to accept it. With others, you can arrange a time and place for safe drop-off when you're not home. The more local the service, the more flexibility you have. With Instacart, for instance, I could pick the exact time for same-day delivery, and got a text when groceries were on the way.


What's the cost?

U.S. consumers are willing to pay for same-day delivery, according to Business Insider, but how much varies widely. In a poll, 88 percent were willing to pay $5 or more, 60 percent would pay $10 or more, and 23 percent (the desperate among us) $20 or more. Trust me, in most cases you'll pay more than $5 per order, and you won't get delivery in one day. Charges (based on volume, weight, and delivery speed) ranged from $5 to $20, depending on whether I wanted my groceries in one day or 10 (Walmart) to $22 in five to 10 business days (MyBrands) to $10+ for FedEx shipping on orders up to $199 (Netgrocer). Note: Given the weight factor, it's probably not wise to order your gallons of juice or olive oil online! And know that many services require a minimum-order total.

The cheapest/fastest option I found was Instacart, which offered free delivery the first time and $4 to $6 per delivery thereafter (within one to two hours). If you find a service you love, it might be less expensive to pay the annual one-time delivery charge—Instacart's is $99, for example.

Of course, you're also paying a markup on the groceries themselves, which can be hard to tease out unless you're a real comparison shopper. I can tell you my 12-pack of Diet Coke via Instacart cost double what my local grocery store charges.

Some deals

Some services do have specials: Netgrocer offered half off on all Frito-Lay products one week. Schwan's has coupons and a rewards program. Some honor national coupons; others don't. Explore each site and pay extra attention to its home page and FAQs.

Boxed, frozen, or fresh?

Perishable or nonperishable? Frozen or fresh or organic? You can get it all online if you find the right service. But keep in mind some (like Schwan's) offer only frozen foods, while others deliver only nonperishables. You'll have to poke around to find what you need.

Some services like FreshDirect offer organic fruits and vegetables, and even a one-time share in a CSA (community-supported agriculture). A friend in New York received a box from a farm cooperative filled with fresh kale, kohlrabi, zucchini, spring onions, potatoes, and more. That led her to experiment with veggies she'd never cooked with.

Bottom line

As fun as it was to get a big box of frozen appetizers, what I really wanted and needed was the same experience I get when shopping myself—but without the shopping.

That made Instacart the big winner for me. A personal shopper shopped at my local stores (Kroger and Costco) and bought all my usual foods. She texted if she needed to make a substitution and personally delivered the food—frozen, fresh, nonperishable—within two hours right to my door. In cute Instacart bags. Yes, the spinach probably shouldn't have been at the bottom of the bag (it looked like someone had sat on it), but I've seen it looking much worse coming out of my own shopping bag! —AnnieK

This article was first published in the June/July/August 2015 issue of Allrecipes magazine.

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