How Does Instacart Work?

What's the inside scoop on this popular grocery delivery service?

Instacart is an online grocery delivery service that has more in common with Doordash or Postmates than Amazon Fresh. Unlike grocery stores that deliver their own goods, Instacart works with thousands of personal shoppers who will go to the store of your choice, buy everything on your shopping list, and deliver it right to your doorstep. You can place orders through their website or a convenient app, select from a wide variety of stores, and choose to pay per delivery or opt for a yearly subscription fee. Here's how Instacart delivery works.

A busy person uses Instacart on their phone from work.
 Nora Carol Photography / Moment / Getty

Is Instacart Legit?

Instacart is totally legitimate. It may seem out of the ordinary to have a stranger go grocery shopping for you, but Instacart is a real business with a long track record of providing a valuable service.

Whether or not Instacart is worth it is an individual matter. The per-delivery fee is fairly low, so it can represent a real value if you're too busy to go grocery shopping yourself. Prices can be more expensive than you would pay in-store though, so it's really a question of whether or not you feel like it's worth paying for the convenience.

How Does Instacart Work?

Instacart is a lot like any other online shopping experience. You make an account, choose the items you want to buy, and then provide some type of payment. The only difference is behind the scenes, because Instacart doesn't own any grocery warehouses or stores.

A screenshot of the Instacart shopping cart.

Instead of building that kind of infrastructure, Instacart pays personal shoppers to go to the store of your choice, buy the items you request, and then deliver the entire order straight to your door. You can place an order up to two weeks out using Instacart's Order Ahead feature.

Here's what the process of buying from Instacart looks like:

  1. Create an account on Instacart.com or the Instacart app.

    A screenshot of the Instacart sign up process.

    You can get the Instacart app for iOS devices through the app store, or the Instacart app for Android through Google Play. Make sure to download the Instacart: Same-day grocery delivery app. Don't download the Instacart Shopper app unless you actually want to deliver groceries for Instacart.

  2. Click or tap Stores > your store of choice to select a store.

    A screenshot of Instacart store selection.
  3. Add the items you want to purchase to your cart.

    A screenshot of adding Instacart items to a cart.
  4. Open your cart by clicking or tapping the shopping cart, then click Go to Checkout.

    A screenshot of the Instacart checkout.
  5. Select a delivery time frame and your payment method, and click or tap Place Order.

    Instacart has a feature called Fast and Flexible delivery, which allows you to choose a 48-hour delivery window, rather than a 2-hour one. If you choose this, you'll be assigned the first available shopper within that period, rather than waiting for a 2-hour window to open up.

    A screenshot of the Instacart checkout process.
  6. Make sure you're home in time for your delivery window.

    If there are any issues, your Instacart shopper may contact you through the app.

  7. Your Instacart shopper will purchase your groceries and deliver them within the appointed delivery window.

How Do Instacart Shoppers Choose Items?

In most cases, Instacart shoppers simply buy the exact items that you choose on the Instacart website or app. When selecting items like produce or meat, shoppers are trained to find the freshest and best options available, to check expiration dates, and look for things like broken seals and signs of spoilage or poor quality.

A screenshot showing Instacart out of stock preferences.

When selecting substitutes for items that are out of stock, the shopper will operate based on your instructions. If you request for your shopper to substitute with back-up items, then they'll choose a different brand that's similar to the one you wanted, and you may end up paying more or not getting sale prices. If you request no substitutes, they'll simply skip that item.

How Does Instacart Make Money?

Instacart makes money primarily via delivery fees, which vary depending on factors like how many items you purchase, your total bill, and your delivery window. For regular orders, delivery fees are usually between $3.99 and 7.99. The delivery fee increases during high demand periods when there may not be enough shoppers to fill all orders.

In addition to basic delivery fees, Instacart also charges a service fee that's usually about five percent per order.

Instacart also offers their Instacart Express subscription service that allows you to skip delivery fees and ignore the extra charge that's normally assessed during peak delivery hours. You can cancel Instacart Express at any time if you decide that you aren't using the service enough to justify the cost.

How Does Instacart Price Their Groceries?

Instacart's grocery pricing model is complicated and confusing, and you often end up paying more for groceries through Instacart than you would if you just went and bought them yourself.

Screenshots of Instacart on the left and Publix on the right, showing higher pricing through Instacart.

In the past, Instacart has attempted to provide specific information to increase transparency on pricing matters. For example, at one point, they provided you with two pieces of information when selecting a store: whether or not the prices are higher than you'd pay if you went shopping for yourself, and who is responsible for setting the prices.

This information is no longer available, and in our experience, prices through Instacart tend to be a little more expensive than you'd pay in-store. If you notice something that seems out of line, they do provide an option to report incorrect pricing. However, a certain amount of markup seems to be the reality.

How Do Instacart Tips Work?

Instacart suggests a default five percent tip when you check out, and a minimum tip of $2 if your order is especially small. However, tips are optional, and you're free to tip as much or as little as you want. If you feel like you received exceptional service, you can even adjust your tip for up to three days after your delivery.

Tips go directly to the delivery person. While Instacart does pay a base amount per delivery that's based on factors like the size of the order and the distance the delivery person has to drive, adding a tip is a way to show that you appreciate a job well done.

Where Can You Shop With Instacart Delivery?

Instacart is able to delivery from most grocery stores in most areas, but there are some exceptions. Check out Instacart's locations page for up to date information about which stores are available in your area.