There's a Human Being on the Other Side of Your Instacart Order

Despite how reliant customers have become on app-based services, they don't always treat workers with the respect (or tips) they deserve. Here are five rules for being a better Instacart user.

InstaCart employees fulfill orders for delivery
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A few months ago, I got a phone call from my mother, venting about her most recent Instacart order. I was on the edge of my seat waiting to hear what had happened to her. After she regained her composure, she recounted the events from the morning. A customer of hers had requested Phillips' Milk of Magnesia brand laxatives. My mom informed said customer that this specific brand was out of stock, and because they had no specific replacement request on the app, she directly asked them which brand they prefer. After waiting 15 minutes with no response, my mom crossed her fingers and chose MiraLAX. After checking out, packing the groceries, and delivering them to the correct address, my mom's extremely upset customer screamed at her from their doorstep, "YOU GOT THE WRONG LAXATIVE, B****!"

During the height of the pandemic, like many others, my mom turned to Instacart as a way to make additional income. Though this experience was on the comparatively mild side, and is now something we find a bit of humor in, it did affect her ratings that compromised her ability to get high-paying orders. Experiences of this sort aren't out of the norm — and oftentimes worse.

After completing nearly 1000 orders, it became clear to her that most people don't understand the human side of these app-based transactions.

Using apps like Instacart to shop for groceries and personal items has become a quintessential part of our everyday lives. As much as this job offers flexibility, as shoppers can choose when they want to work and what orders they choose, it also has its drawbacks. Many shoppers, like my mom, suffer from wear and tear on their cars, inconsistent income, supply chain issues, negative ratings, and frustrating communication. I interviewed Instacart workers on what they wished customers knew before, during, and after placing an order. In order to protect their income, interviewees requested to remain anonymous.

The "delivery" people do much more than drive.

On the app, Instacart refers to their workers as "delivery" people, but to the shoppers themselves, it does not fully describe their work.

An Instacart shopper from Boca Raton, FL told me, "Instacart calls us delivery drivers, when in reality we are personal shoppers. We are given a list and detail-oriented shoppers, such as myself, select the best produce, check meat and dairy dates, make sure packaging is intact, and carefully bag items, before delivering items. We are taking the time to make sure the experience is as seamless as possible for our customers and provide an important service."

Knowing how much goes into your Instacart shopper's service is an important step in appreciating their work.

If you don't communicate clearly, shoppers can't do their job.

Among the app-based gigs, Instacart is probably the one most dependent on good communication since it provides a complete shopping experience for customers. As a result, communication is key for making sure your Instacart shopper has all of the necessary information to complete your order.

A shopper from Charlotte, NC, pleaded, "Just be available to get a text message from us asking which items you prefer, especially if your first-choice is out of stock. Often customers don't check their chats, which slows down my shopping and may affect my ratings if someone thinks I did a poor job because they weren't responsive to my questions."

"Please leave us the gate code and specific delivery instructions on where you'd like your items left, if you don't tell us, we don't know," explained a shopper from Chicago, IL. "Also, if you place an order at night, please leave the light on, it makes us feel safer."

"If an item is unavailable, we're faced with a decision: do we refund the item or do we use the app's suggested item?" said another shopper. "If the order's tip is based on percent [of the order], you either lose money by refunding the item, or you risk choosing an item that the customer won't like and might get a lower rating." The importance of communicating with your shopper cannot be overstated.

If an item isn't available, it's not the shopper's fault.

Supply chain issues and inflation have made it difficult for many grocery stores to keep certain items on hand. As a result, Instacart shoppers may not be able to find all of the items they want. This is not their fault.

A shopper from Fort Mill, SC, said, "It is more common to see shelves empty these days due to supply chain issues, and I wish customers knew that this is not my mistake. I do not have control over store [item] availability so if a customer wants or doesn't want a specific item, they need to make it known."

Don't blame your shopper for things that are beyond their control. Flexibility and understanding are crucial.

Ratings have a direct effect on a shopper's job security and personal wellbeing.

After each order, Instacart prompts customers to leave their shoppers a rating, and it really matters.

"In order to succeed, we rely heavily on ratings. Not only does it affect our ability to see and receive good batches, but it also affects our morale," explained one shopper. "When you wake up in the morning and see a negative rating without any explanation or person to ask why, it's difficult to deal with. It is only a matter of seconds for a customer to make a decision that will impact us in the long run. I am open to constructive criticism, but one-star reviews without any explanation just flat-out hurt."

According to the same shopper, "Just as negative ratings harm us, positive ratings really benefit us. A lot of people forget to rate their shoppers and it's something so simple that can really help us."

After your order is complete, please take a few moments to leave a review, as it's very valuable to your shopper. It's easy to lose track of this after you've received your goods thinking that the order is complete, but it's essential if you actually are serious about supporting the people who do this work for you.

Don't weaponize your tip (and yes, people do this).

When asked how much to tip on Instacart, different people give different answers. Of course there's a larger argument that can be made about the American tipping system, but within the current system, don't take your frustration out on those who rely on it for income.

An Instacart shopper from Concord, NC, wants people to understand, "We basically work for tips. Instacart pays us a base pay of $7 to $10 per order, regardless of items and mileage. Customers should really think about what goes into their orders before tipping."

As tips are an essential part of a shopper's experience, they sometimes deal with harassment and people taking advantage of the dynamic. A shopper from Indian Land, SC, said, "Something that I wish people didn't do is bait-tipping. A large tip is left on an order to get it grabbed up, but when the order is finished, the tip is taken away. It's rare that Instacart advocates for us or penalizes these customers. The whole thing is just messed up."

Because Instacart shoppers earn most of their income from tips, always tip them. A lot of work goes into their jobs and after all, they're humans, just like you.

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