Grocery Delivery: Pros, Cons, and Costs of Having Someone Else Do Your Shopping
Last updated November 2022
During the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery delivery seemed to many consumers a safer option than traipsing through stores, putting enormous pressure on grocery stores to add or greatly expand delivery and curbside pickup. Fortunately, many stores had already added delivery before COVID hit. In 2017, Amazon made big waves by gobbling up Whole Foods, using the chain’s distribution network to expand delivery. Target, Walmart, and most major supermarket chains scurried to catch up, worried the 1,000-pound gorilla of delivery would win over huge chunks of their market share. And it spurred new investment in, and partnerships with, get-your-goods outfits like Instacart.
In this area there remain lots of ways to order grocery deliveries. Most large chains—including Giant, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Walmart, Wegmans, Weis, and Whole Foods—run their own delivery operations. For most of these companies, shoppers can also place orders via Instacart or Shipt, third-party sites that use their own gig workers to assemble and transport groceries. At many smaller chains and independent stores, the third-party apps are your only options.
Consumers aren’t avoiding the aisles like they did in 2020, but the pandemic did get a new pool of shoppers hooked on online grocery shopping for good. If you find going to the grocery store a chore and hassle, having your avocados, Doritos, and whatnot delivered likely is a lovely, time-saving option for you. And these services are a great help to those who can’t get to local markets due to physical impairments or a lack of transportation.
Still, at most stores, getting groceries to you involves sending someone else up and down the aisles to gather your stuff and then bring it to you. This means most delivery businesses are merely transferring shopping labor from you to others—and someone pays for that. At some stores, extra costs for delivery are very small (only a few dollars per order), but at others we found that many consumers are paying huge premiums to skip the store.
Big Differences in Delivery Costs
At some stores, we found that having groceries delivered costs about the same as if you’d schlepped them yourself. But we discovered that some delivery options added $40 or more to our order, even before adding a tip. (Please do tip; order-fillers and drivers are paid little and rely on gratuities.)
The table below reports how grocery delivery services we evaluated compare for price. We shopped each option using our market basket of 154 items (the same list we used to compare in-store prices at conventional supermarkets). We then compared the prices we collected from delivery services to those offered in-store at Washington area brick-and-mortar stores we surveyed. The table reports how much our illustrative family of four would spend with each of the grocery delivery services for an order that would cost $250 at an “average” grocery store.
All the delivery services we checked have annual fees, delivery fees, or service fees. Some also mark up prices offered in stores. How much more you’ll pay for delivery depends heavily on the stores you shop at and which service you use.
Several of the options drive up your costs by charging high delivery fees; some charge $10 or more per order. With most, you can pay a membership fee to get unlimited free deliveries or pay lower per-order fees; if you order often, you’ll save by joining. (In our cost comparisons, we assumed our customer would place 36 orders per year and would choose the least expensive option for delivery fees; for services that offer annual memberships, we divided their yearly fee by 36 and added it to the order total.)
We also added a $25 tip to our hypothetical order for each delivery option. If this is less than you’d tip, then adjust our estimates accordingly. Some services accommodate tipping better than others; with a few, there’s no way to do it while ordering, so you have to tip with cash.
You can see that there sometimes aren’t big cost consequences for deliveries vs. shopping yourself. Setting aside the $25 tip, the increased cost for delivery was only about $3 for Harris Teeter, Safeway, Target, and Walmart, if we ordered using their own dedicated services.
But with some delivery options, markups and fees added $40 or more to our totals. Using Instacart to shop at Giant cost us $75 more than what we’d pay in-store, plus tip; placing our order at Harris Teeter through Shipt cost us $80 extra, plus tip.
The total cost of our delivery order, including groceries, fees, and tip, ranged from lows of $183 for ALDI via Instacart, $225 for Lidl via Shipt, and $238 for Walmart, to a high of $365 when ordering from Safeway via Shipt.
The least expensive delivery option, in terms of added fees, was ordering directly through Giant: It doesn’t charge delivery fees for orders delivered Tuesday through Thursday, and charges only $3.95 per order for other days.
Our biggest cost increases usually were due to markups on in-store prices. Though many stores charge the same prices for groceries whether they’re sold in their physical stores or delivered, others add markups to stuff ferried to you. For example, ordering from Harris Teeter via Shipt added about 23 percent to our grocery bill; using Instacart for our Giant order tacked on a markup of 20 percent—and, again, that was before adding in Instacart’s and Shipt’s fees and any tips.
Instacart and Shipt are listed several times in our price comparisons because they let their customers choose among many different chains where they will send their shopper-drivers to find items you ordered, check out, and bring them to you. So with Instacart you could make one order for Wegmans and another for Costco (each trip counts as a separate order).
Instacart and Shipt partner with many grocery stores, and Shipt is owned by Target. When ordering through these services, store personnel at some stores do the shopping and the third-party service handles only the delivery. Other stores simply allow Instacart’s and Shipt’s workers to shop for clients.
With most delivery options you can sign on for an annual membership and get unlimited free deliveries or pay reduced delivery fees.
Instacart memberships cost $99 a year; it also charges a per-order service fee (it’s not a tip, that fee goes to the company). For our $250 order, Instacart’s service fee was usually $10, and it climbs higher if you don’t opt into its annual membership. At some stores you’ll also pay big markups on items when ordering through Instacart.
Shipt also offers memberships for $99 per year, but unlike Instacart doesn’t charge additional per-order fees. But, like Instacart, you have to watch for big price markups.
To get orders from Amazon Fresh or Whole Foods, you need a Prime membership ($14.99/month or $139/year), but there are no additional per-order fees.
BJ’s, Costco, and Sam’s Club also require membership to place delivery orders.
Pros and Cons of Dealing with Grocery Deliveries
Except for some Amazon Fresh orders, stores and third-party delivery services send their personnel into local retail grocery stores to peruse the aisles, select the items you order, and then bring them to you—hardly an efficient operation. While these workers might move faster than you can (it helps that they’re working from a finite, organized list and don’t bring along kids to herd), those added labor costs mean higher bills for you. But for most shoppers, the grocery deliveries are about saving time, not money.
Many people still prefer to do their own grocery shopping.
Ordering online requires more foresight than popping into a store on the way home from work and demands more planning than wandering aisles and throwing what looks good into a cart. And while with most delivery services you don’t have to be home when your order arrives, you’ll still want to schedule your orders to show up at a convenient time to ensure your stuff doesn’t melt, spoil, or disappear.
Building lists of products you often buy makes the online shopping part of the process much more efficient—just pull up your list and click the things you need—but that list-building is, at least at first, tedious.
While we found that stores’ inventory technology has drastically improved in the last few years, on many sites searching for stuff remains incredibly frustrating. For example, searching for “Brussels Sprouts” in some stores yielded us no results; we also got zero hits if we searched for “Gala Apples.” But if we used the improper “Brussel Sprouts” or just “Apples,” bingo!
Our researchers were also annoyed by Instacart and others that made them scroll through sponsored items, featured recipes, and “what others bought” before they could select the things they actually wanted.
At most sites, item descriptions are too vague. Were we buying a pound of jalapeños? A single pepper? A big bag of them? Often there was nothing to indicate what we’d get.
Worst of all, we were often confounded by the snail-like speeds of many websites. In some cases, it would have been faster to run to the store than stare at slow-to-load pages for hours.
On the other hand, one plus of shopping online is that it drastically cuts back on impulse buys. And, again, once you’re organized, delivery services can save time.
Some stores offer online ordering with at-store pickup. You still have to do the planning and list-making but you can check the quality of produce and meat before leaving the store. We didn’t price out these types of arrangements—we don’t have time to do everything—but several Checkbook staffers love this hybrid option.
Quality Often Suffers
You must trust that delivery service personnel will select the unbruised bananas, nonsquishy grapes, good-looking meats, and other products, and make the right call on substitutions when your choices aren’t available. The biggest complaints we get from consumers about grocery deliveries is receiving lousy produce and missing items.
On the quality side, the table below reports results from our recent surveys of Checkbook subscribers. We asked them to rate services they had used “superior,” “adequate,” or “inferior” on several aspects of service. For companies that received at least 10 ratings, the table reports the percent of surveyed customers who gave “superior” ratings.
Surprisingly, few of the services were rated highly by their surveyed customers, but few of them received notably poor ratings, either.
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 choose your produce and meat. This is where the delivery service’s quality standards are key. Our members often were disappointed at the quality of produce received, complaining about rotten, squashed, or frozen items.
- 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 your shopper a note for each item. But ratings we receive for delivery services and our staff’s experience indicate that, in general, orders are too often delivered with missing items. Using a delivery service is no timesaver if you have to trek to a store anyway.
- You must make a list—Most stores have greatly improved their websites’ features to help customers build lists quickly. 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 person. But if you don’t have it in you to make even a sketchy list, delivery services probably aren’t for you.