For 20 years and counting, dot-com pundits have predicted grocery delivery would be one of the next big online retail phenoms. Nonetheless, most of us still regularly schlep to the grocery store, wander up and down dozens of aisles, peer at every pint of strawberries and thump a dozen melons to find the best, forget something and backtrack six aisles, tell our kids “no” 200 times, wait in line to check out, load the car, unload the car.

Several companies, including Amazon and some venture-capital-well-funded companies are still betting that, just as the internet has taken over so many other consumer services, lots of us finally will start using computers and smartphones to buy our apples and zucchini. There are now more grocery delivery options than ever.

There for sure is a (so far slowly) growing market for grocery delivery. Some consumers view going to the grocery store as a chore and hassle, and delivery services can definitely save you a lot of time. And these services can greatly help those who can’t get to local markets due to physical impairments or who lack transportation.

But there are several reasons why so many shoppers still spend a lot of time buying their groceries in person. Ordering online requires more foresight than popping into a store on the way home from work and demands somewhat more planning than wandering aisles and throwing what looks good into a cart. With most delivery services you must be home to greet your goods, which requires scheduling. Building a list of products you want to buy makes the online shopping part of the process a lot more efficient—just pull up your list and click the things you need—but that list-building is, at least at first, tedious. You must trust that delivery service personnel will select the best-quality produce and other products, and make the right call on substitutions when your choices aren’t available. And most of the online options cost more than shopping yourself.

In theory, grocery delivery should benefit both retailers and consumers. Well-designed websites, along with high-tech warehouses and inventory control systems, would allow you to see a continually updated list of available items and prices, get organized by creating lists of things you buy, and bring it to you when you want it. They could send you special offers based on your purchase history, or even offer recipes and meal planning tips and ideas. But the big appeal for most shoppers is saving time.

Grocers could benefit from a shift to delivery because it would let them close stores and sell from just a few centralized distribution warehouses. That would save a lot on real estate and sharply consolidate their distribution networks, eliminating a lot of energy use. Fewer facilities would also let them combine bakery, meat cutting, and kitchens to make prepared-food items. Without retail stores, they wouldn’t have to maintain attractive facilities, stock shelves, and display produce to appeal to customers. And in these specialized warehouses and distribution facilities, they could more efficiently keep perishables refrigerated or frozen.

But most delivery services haven’t moved toward that type of centralized model. In this area, only Amazon, FreshDirect, and Peapod work out of warehouses; the rest of the delivery services we looked at send their personnel to local retail grocery stores to walk up and down the aisles, select the items you order, and then bring them to you—hardly an efficient operation. While their shoppers might move through stores faster than you can (it helps that they’re working from a finite, organized list and don’t bring along kids to herd), these services in effect have only transferred from you to their workers the labor of picking out items at a store and driving them home. So, a potential big time-saver for you? Yes. But you’ll have to pay extra for it.

All the delivery services charge delivery fees, mark up stores’ item pricing, or both. The price penalty depends on which service you use and what you sign up for. The figure below reports how local grocery delivery services we evaluated compare for price. To compare their prices for groceries, we shopped delivery services using our market basket of 154 items (the same list we used to compare prices at conventional grocery stores).

We started by comparing the prices we collected from delivery services to those offered in-store at Washington area brick-and-mortar stores we surveyed. The figure reports how much more or less you’d spend with each delivery service, compared to the average prices we found at all surveyed local brick-and-mortar grocery stores. Click here to see how local grocery stores stack up for price and quality.

We calculated how much you’d spend with each of the grocery delivery services per month for groceries that would cost $200 per week in-store at an “average” grocery store. Then we added in each delivery service’s extra fees, assuming our hypothetical shopper would place orders once a week. Finally, we added a 10 percent tip for each order.

You can see that there are often big cost consequences to hiring someone to do your shopping. For groceries that would cost $867 a month at the “average” brick-and-mortar grocery store, our estimates for delivery services range from $839 at Walmart (which at the time of this writing served only parts of the New Jersey suburbs), $943 using Shipt at Target, and $992 with Peapod to nearly $1,400 using Instacart at Acme.

Keep in mind that grocery delivery options are changing rapidly—a few went online or disappeared while we were doing our price research and writing this. Notably, Walmart only very recently began delivering to parts of New Jersey, and says it plans further expansion. By the time you read this, more changes likely occurred.

We also report below some practical info on each service: Delivery area; where it obtains groceries; whether it offers unattended delivery; and our shoppers’ general experiences and impressions from our price collection and orders we received.

The 1,000-pound gorilla of grocery delivery, of course, is Amazon, which with its purchase of Whole Foods has accelerated its expansion into the supermarket scene. In many parts of the Delaware Valley area, it offers both its Fresh and Prime Now services. To use either, you have to first sign up for Amazon Prime ($119/year); to join Fresh, you also have to pay $14.99/month. All orders with Fresh are fulfilled at an Amazon facility. With Prime Now, you can choose Amazon or a nearby store (in this area, so far the local option is usually just Whole Foods). Our research finds Fresh offers slightly lower prices than Prime Now, which will make up for its monthly fee if you buy a lot. As Amazon continues its take-over-all-retail strategy, we expect it will offer more options and features—and possibly lower prices.

Walmart has tried out several delivery models in pilot cities, and its latest foray is trying to make a go of delivery using Walmart employees and drivers working out of its Cherry Hill store. You pay Walmart’s low in-store prices, plus a $9.95 delivery fee. While this arrangement offers low costs, so far, Walmart’s delivery service area includes just Camden County.

Instacart is listed several times in our price comparisons because it works somewhat differently than the others. Rather than procuring groceries from one store or warehouse, it lets customers choose among many different chains, where it will send a shopper-driver to find the items you ordered, check out, and bring them to you. So, you could make one order for Whole Foods and another for Wegmans and yet another for Costco (each trip would be treated as a separate order).

Instacart has partnerships with some of the grocery stores it uses; store personnel at some stores do the shopping and Instacart handles only the delivery. But most grocery stores it uses just put up with Instacart’s workers coming in and shopping for clients.

We found that Instacart and a few other delivery services add a big markup to the prices you’d pay on your own in-store. For Instacart, that markup is typically smaller than the others at its partner stores. Sometimes the markup is significant: In our shopping, Instacart’s markup at Wegmans was 15 percent; at Costco it was 34 percent, enough to wipe out a lot of that warehouse club’s price advantage. Instacart also adds a five percent service fee to each order; that fee isn’t a tip, it goes to Instacart.

Several of the services drive up your costs by charging high delivery fees; some charge $10 or more per order. With many, you can pay a membership fee to get unlimited free deliveries—for example, with Instacart you can pay $6 to $12 per delivery or $149 per year. If you order often, you’ll save a lot by joining. (In our cost comparisons, we assumed our shopper would choose the least expensive option for delivery fees.)

We also added a 10 percent tip to our hypothetical weekly orders. If that’s more or less than you’d tip, then adjust our estimates accordingly. Some services accommodate tipping better than others; with some, there’s no way to do it while ordering, so you have to tip with cash.

On the quality side, the table below reports results from our recent limited survey of Checkbook subscribers. We asked them to rate services they had used as “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on several aspects of service. The table reports the percent who gave "superior" ratings. The scores are combined ratings from subscribers in all of the seven metro areas where we publish Checkbook; we report ratings for the companies that received at least 10 ratings. Note that for Instacart we report all the ratings we obtained for it; because it shops at several different chains, each with different buying standards, these scores for product quality issues aren’t as meaningful as for the other services.

Surprisingly, none of the services were rated highly by their surveyed customers, but none of them received notably poor ratings, either. We’ll update these ratings as we continue to collect survey results for grocery delivery services.

In addition to higher costs, we found other drawbacks when trying out grocery delivery:

  • Selecting produce and meat—You might not like having someone else select your produce and meat. This is where the delivery service’s quality standards are key. When we tried out multiple services, we were often disappointed at the quality of produce we received: About half the time, they bought several items that were rotten, squashed, or frozen.
  • Missing items—If you’re shopping and the store is out of an item, you can usually find a substitute. With most delivery services you tell it whether to pick a substitute or bring your order without that item; some even let you leave a note for each item for your shopper. But ratings we receive for delivery services and our staff’s experience is that in general orders are too often brought with missing items. Using a delivery service is no time-saver if you have to trek to a store anyway.
  • You must make a list—It’s really inefficient to shop online without setting up a list of items you want to buy. Making a list—and sticking to it—is something you should do to avoid forgetting items and to minimize impulse purchases even if you shop in-store. But if you don’t have it in you to make even a sketchy list, delivery services probably aren’t for you.
  • You have to schedule—Some of the services can leave shipments in coolers if you’re not home, and most will deliver at night or on weekends. That’s not so bad if the service offers wide choices regarding delivery time, short delivery windows, and prompt service, but not all are so accommodating. When scheduling, our shoppers sometimes found the most convenient delivery times (nights, weekends) weren’t available for several days out.

On the other hand, one thing we really liked about shopping online is that it drastically cut back on impulse buys. And, again, delivery services give the gift of time.

Some stores offer online ordering with at-store pickup. You still have to be able to stomach the planning and list-making process, but you don’t have to be home for deliveries, and you can check the quality of produce and meat before leaving the store. We didn’t price out these types of arrangements—we just didn’t have time to do everything—but several Checkbook staffers love this hybrid option.
 

Policies, Fees, and Notes on Delivery Services

AmazonFresh

Delivery area: All of Philadelphia and parts of Camden, Chester, and Delaware counties, with further expansion underway.
Where it gets groceries: Amazon’s local warehouses.
Arrangements: Schedules attended or not-at-home deliveries; coolers used for unattended orders.
Delivery/membership fees: Must join Amazon Prime ($119/year), then join AmazonFresh ($14.99/month).
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Prices for groceries were about four percent higher than Shipt from Target and about the same as at Peapod and TheFreshGrocer. Amazon recently launched its Prime Now grocery delivery service, which doesn’t require a separate monthly membership fee and uses its warehouses and participating stores. (Whole Foods is a common option.) Its expansion of Prime Now to the Delaware Valley area occurred after we did our extensive price shopping of local grocery stores and delivery services, but our research in other metro areas finds Fresh offers lower prices than Prime Now, which for frequent shoppers will offset Fresh’s $14.99/monthly fee.

Amazon Prime Now

Delivery area: Select neighborhoods throughout metro area, with further expansion underway.
Where it gets groceries: Amazon’s local warehouses or Whole Foods.
Arrangements: Schedules attended or not-at-home deliveries; coolers used for unattended orders.
Delivery/membership fees: Must join Amazon Prime ($119/year). Delivery fees vary by size of order and store selected, but except for small orders it’s usually free.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Fresh offers slightly lower prices than Prime Now, which for frequent shoppers will offset Fresh’s $14.99/monthly fee.

Costco.com (“Powered by Instacart”)

Delivery area: Areas located within 10 miles of Costco locations, which includes most of the metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Costco stores.
Arrangements: Schedules attended or not-at-home deliveries, but you’ll want to be home, as it doesn’t use coolers.
Delivery fees: Using Costco’s website: $60/year to join Costco, then free delivery for orders over $35. Using Instacart’s website: $5.99-$11.99/order, depending on size of order and delivery window you select. Or pay $149/year for Express, which gets you unlimited free deliveries for orders $35 or more. Also adds five percent service fee to each order.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: You can order deliveries from Costco using Instacart’s website or via Costco.com. If you order via Costco’s site, you have to pay its $60 annual membership fee. Either way, for home delivery via Instacart you’ll pay a big markup from Costco’s regular prices. When we shopped at Costco.com, we found items cost 34 percent more than in store if we wanted them delivered by Instacart; using Instacart’s portal for Costco, prices were 31 percent more than normal. These big markups negate a big chunk of Costco’s usual price advantage over other local retailers and most other grocery delivery options.

FreshDirect

Delivery area: Entire metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Its own warehouses, which it says is supplied by local farms and fisheries.
Arrangements: Schedules attended deliveries only.
Delivery fees: No fee to sign up. $30 minimum. Delivery costs $7.99/order, or join DeliveryPass for unlimited free deliveries for $79/6 months or $129/year.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Popular service in New York metro area that recently expanded here. Advertises as a source for locally sourced food, but also offers typical national-brand products. Expensive.

Instacart

Delivery area: Areas located within 10 miles of stores it shops, which pretty much includes the entire metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Local stores for several chains, including Acme, BJ’s, Costco, CVS, Giant, Hmart, PriceRite, Safeway, Wegmans, and Whole Foods.
Arrangements: Schedules attended or not-at-home deliveries, but you’ll want to be home, as it doesn’t use coolers.
Delivery fees: No fee to sign up. Delivery costs $5.99-$11.99/order, depending on size of order and delivery window you select. Or pay $149/year for Express, which gets you unlimited free deliveries for orders $35 or more. Also adds five percent service fee to each order.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Since you get to select the store where it will shop, you control the source and quality of produce, etc. Ability to get delivery from discounters like BJ’s and Costco is a nice option. But its markup for many stores is very high; for example, we found its markup was 23 percent at Acme and 34 percent at Costco. Its markup is sometimes lower at stores with which it has established partnerships, which at the time of this writing included CVS, Hmart, and Whole Foods.

Peapod by Giant

Delivery area: Entire metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Its own warehouses, which are tied to Giant’s distribution system.
Arrangements: Schedules attended or not-at-home deliveries; coolers used for unattended orders.
Delivery fees: No fee to sign up. $60 minimum. Delivery costs $2.95-$9.95/order, depending on size of order and delivery window you select. Or join PodPass, which gets you unlimited free deliveries for orders $100 or more; membership cost varies depending on length of membership and whether you want mid-week vs. flexible delivery days; for $112 you join for a year and get most flexible options.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Small markup compared to usual Giant prices. Peapod has been around a long time, which means it seems a bit more organized than many of the others. Could reduce a lot of paper and plastic waste by improving how it packs items.

Shipt

Delivery area: Areas located within 20-minute drive of local Target and SuperTarget stores, which pretty much includes the entire metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Target stores.
Arrangements: Schedules attended deliveries only.
Delivery/membership fees: Must join for $14/month or $99/year. Free delivery for orders over $35, otherwise $7/order fee.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Acquired by Target late in 2017. Lowest total costs among delivery services we shopped. But we found the site very clunky and difficult to use: It often doesn’t include product details (exact sizes, ingredients), and, unlike other sites, lacks filters and sort functions that let us narrow or sort choices by brand, type, or price.

TheFreshGrocer

Delivery area: Philadelphia and Delaware County.
Where it gets groceries: TheFreshGrocer stores.
Arrangements: Schedules attended deliveries only.
Delivery fees: $15.95/order.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Doesn’t let you add a tip when ordering, which means you must have cash for that.

Walmart

Delivery area: So far, only addresses located within a 7.5-mile radius of its Burlington, Somerdale, and Turnersville stores.
Where it gets groceries: Walmart stores.
Arrangements: Schedules attended deliveries only.
Delivery/membership fees: $9.95/order. $30 minimum.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Very inexpensive, cheaper than shopping in person at most other grocery stores. But so far limited service areas. Doesn’t let you add a tip when ordering, which means you must have cash for that. Walmart gets lousy ratings from customers we survey for produce and meat quality.