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 works 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 Puget Sound 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 $791 at Walmart (which at the time of this writing served only parts of King County), $905 with Shipt at Target, and $990 with AmazonFresh to more than $1,200 with a few other options.

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 continues to expand its delivery service areas around the U.S. 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 shopper’s 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 Puget Sound 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 options are usually just PCC or Whole Foods). Our research finds Fresh offers 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 a partnership with DoorDash, which is a restaurant delivery business. Walmart store employees assemble grocery orders and DoorDash drivers deliver them; 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 is small.

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 between 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 QFC 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 Shipt add big markups 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, Shipt’s markup at QFC was 14 percent; at Costco, Instacart’s markeup was 23 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. Safeway told us its drivers are not allowed to accept tips, so we didn’t include tips in our cost examples for it.

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 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 King and Snohomish counties and most of Kitsap and Pierce 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: Inexpensive. Offers lower prices than Amazon’s Prime Now option, which for frequent shoppers will offset Fresh’s $14.99/monthly fee.

Amazon Prime Now

Delivery area: All of King and Snohomish counties and most of Kitsap and Pierce counties, with further expansion underway.
Where it gets groceries: Amazon’s local warehouses or local participating stores. (PCC and Whole Foods are the most common local options.)
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: Offers higher prices than AmazonFresh, but if delivery from a local store is available, you can control where your produce, etc., comes from, which is nice if you prefer Whole Foods.

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—about 23 percent higher than buying items in store. These big markups negate a big chunk of Costco’s usual price advantage over other local retailers.

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 Albertsons, BevMo!, Central Co-op, Costco, CVS, Fred Meyer, Metropolitan Market, PCC, QFC, Safeway, Total Wine, 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 Costco, and unique stores like Central Co-op, Metropolitan, and PCC, is a nice option. But its markup for many stores is high; for example, we found its markup was nearly 23 percent at Costco. Its markup is sometimes lower at stores with which it has established partnerships, which at the time of this writing included BevMo!, Central Co-op, CVS, Fred Meyer, PCC, QFC, Total Wine, and Whole Foods.

Safeway

Delivery area: Areas located near Safeway stores, which pretty much includes the entire metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Albertsons and Safeway stores.
Arrangements: Schedules attended deliveries only.
Delivery fees: No fee to sign up. $49 minimum. Delivery costs $.95-$12.95/order, depending on delivery window you select, but we found most early morning, evening, and weekend windows cost $12.95.
Notes from Checkbook’s shoppers: Told us drivers are not allowed to accept tips.

Shipt

Delivery area: Areas located within 20-minute drive of local Fred Meyer, QFC, and Target stores, which pretty much includes the entire metro area.
Where it gets groceries: Fred Meyer, QFC, and 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. For orders from Target, offers low total costs—lower than shopping in-store at many area options. Total delivered prices from Fred Meyer were about 10 percent higher than from Target. Ordering from QFC was an expensive option. 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 that let us narrow choices by brand or type.

Walmart

Delivery area: So far, only Auburn, Bellevue, Lakewood, Marysville, and Puyallup.
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 very limited service area. 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.