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Online grocery shopping is missing one thing — a dash of delight

I thought Instacart would simplify my life. The reality was more complicated.

By Schuyler Velasco

“Hi, it’s Mike! I have a question…”

I looked at the chat notification on my phone and made a grumpy noise. It was my Instacart personal shopper — again — and I already knew what he was about to ask.

“Do you want three avocados?”

Some variation of this question had come up several times since I started using the grocery shopping and delivery app. The confusion stemmed from the platform’s stock photo for a single avocado purchase: three avocados. I usually wanted three, but I had pressed the option for one a few times and gotten only one. Other weeks, I’d correctly chosen three, but personal shoppers had brought me nine — most of which went to waste, since my life isn’t generally festive enough to warrant a weekly vat of guacamole.

“Yes, three, please!” I texted back.

It was one of many surprising complications in a service that promised simplicity. I had signed up for Instacart after our second child was born, and the shaky sense of order that my husband and I had cultivated since becoming parents had come crashing down. We already did most of our non-food shopping online, and my grocery trips were calibrated for maximum efficiency. I marched the aisles on a brisk autopilot, coming away with a cart that looked nearly identical week after week.

So why wouldn’t grocery shopping via app take one mindless, time-consuming chore off my overflowing plate and leave time for better things? I imagined unlocking new multitasking achievements, like feeding my baby on the couch while browsing 12-packs of Polar seltzer.

But the experience still had some kinks to work out. Even as I used Instacart again and again, adjusting to quirks like the avocado thing, I realized my issue with online grocery shopping was bigger and more complicated. Something about the way I used to feel while shopping in a physical store was missing. That felt like the key to why online grocery shopping has been slow to catch fire. If there was a way to make grocery apps more useful and enjoyable, I realized — and experts confirmed — it was to recreate the experience, not of checking off a list, but of discovering something I needed.

There have been plenty of efforts to make online food shopping as routine as the other online purchases that are eroding brick-and-mortar retail. Founded in 2012, Instacart, which uses a fleet of gig economy workers to shop for and deliver groceries, is now available in 25 states. There’s also Shipt, a Target-owned service; Peapod (owned and operated by the grocery chain Stop & Shop); and Postmates, which will deliver from grocery stores or restaurants. In 2017, Amazon purchased Whole Foods, a step toward the e-commerce behemoth doing to supermarkets what it has done to virtually every other form of retail.

Still, the grocery industry has proven a tough nut to crack, especially in the United States. Instacart, a private company, won’t share its user numbers. But according to a February 2019 survey from Bain & Co., only about 3 percent of U.S. groceries are bought online, compared with 27 percent for clothing, and about 15 percent for retail overall. (According to an August 2019 Gallup poll, online grocery shopping is most common among people between the ages of 30 and 49, who are most likely to have young children.) And for nearly everyone, app-based groceries are still a novelty. Even among the people surveyed who had grocery shopped online, only a quarter reported doing it more than once a month. 

Why has grocery lagged behind? Many online grocery services in the United States operate as a middle man between customers and grocery chains, creating a lot of unpredictable variables, including price fluctuations and a lack of control over inventory. For chains that have in-house delivery, warehouses, trucks, and insurance costs are high in an industry where profit margins are already razor-thin.

Also, as experts often point out, old habits die hard. “At the grocery store, you like tomatoes to look and feel a certain way, and that’s going to create concerns for some customers,” Scott Sonenshein, a business professor at Rice University, told a university publication in 2017 .

A new box of clothes from Stitch Fix or a new automated playlist from Spotify offer the possibility of something new I would never pick myself. But my weekly grocery cart looked more identical than ever.

That “touch it before you buy it” idea was a concern when online retail began, but many industries found ways around the hesitation. We also like trying on clothes, but once purveyors like Stitch Fix and Trunk Club figured out how to work around that — by making returns easier — online clothes shopping took off. Makeup shopping was an in-store endeavor before the rise of online beauty influencers and sample companies like Birch Box.

Compared with other types of shopping, however, grocery app technology is still wanting, experts say. “The ordering process, it’s got a lot of work to do. There are so many things that aren’t up to snuff, in comparison to the way you order a movie on Netflix,says Kevin Kelley, a retail strategist and design architect with the firm Shook Kelley, which counts several grocery store chains among its clients. In my own experience, search functionality didn’t seem as sophisticated as what I’d become used to in other areas; once, when I searched “Head and Shoulders” for the shampoo, a package of lamb meat — the shoulder cut — was among the results. “That’s going to take a lot of experienced designers [to fix],” Kelley says.

Instacart’s developers are trying, it’s clear. They’re well aware of the vagaries of produce, and give shoppers the option to leave written instructions for each selection — “Tinged green, please!” I wrote under a bunch of bananas. As a shopper raced around the store picking up items on my behalf, the app provided real-time updates on his progress and sent me messages if he had any questions. (Some services, like Peapod, shop off your list without the interaction.) When something was out of stock, an algorithm suggested a replacement or gave me the option for a refund.

The result, it turned out, was a strangely exhausting spell of real-time monitoring every time a personal shopper made a trip. A grocery store is more of a living, breathing organism than a place that sells clothing or books. Things ran out of stock constantly, requiring my approval for replacements. (The app tries to anticipate when things are running low, but it can’t accurately predict everything.) If I put my phone down at any time during the trip, I risked unwanted, occasionally silly swap-outs — a pricey organic upgrade on frozen broccoli or the wrong-sized diapers.

Some of these problems could be fixed with better functionality, like the ability to save a list of wanted replacements for each product in order of priority. Other concerns felt grander in scale. For instance, our family had converted to reusable grocery bags long ago, but for delivery orders, Instacart sent its drivers to a Wegmans that used the old-school plastic bags, which were easier for them to carry. Overrun with plastic we didn’t want, we eventually switched to curbside pickup at our neighborhood branch.

It was all annoying, sure. But my discontent ran deeper. For one, I had been underestimating the constant little decisions I made when I shopped in person and the satisfaction I got from them. Shopping online, I realized, meant missing that one weird week in January when I would discover fresh, cheap avocados in Massachusetts and the exact week in the fall when strawberries become inedible. I wouldn’t pick up an oversized chocolate peanut butter cookie for the family to split just because, or decide on the fly to make an Oscars-themed dinner. Some of these decisions were deliberately influenced by store displays and promotions, of course. But they still felt fun.

This gets at the heart of the problem with groceries online: There’s no joy in it, no sense of the discovery or personalization that characterizes a lot of our online existence, for better or worse. A new box of clothes from Stitch Fix or a new automated playlist from Spotify offer the possibility of something new I would never pick myself. But my weekly grocery cart looked more identical than ever, unless something was out of stock.

Kelley likens the differences in those experiences to building an addition to a house. “There’s a tendency to think a consumer needs nails and plywood and two-by-fours and sheet metal and roofing shingles,” he says. “They’re actually looking for inspiration on how to live a better life. And the grocery store has that opportunity. Right now, they tend to approach it like a lumberyard. They’re trying to give you the inventory, but they’re not really helping you discover new ideas.”

In Kelley’s mind, the technology will improve. It always does. From there, the future of the online grocery experience could go one of two ways. The first possibility is that a major tech company like Amazon could sweep in and overtake the grocery industry the way it did with books, wiping out regional chains and leading to a dreary sameness of options and inventory across the country — my identical cart problem writ large.

But there might be another way, Kelley thinks. Grocery retailers could begin to view themselves more as curators, better responding to your individual needs and lifestyle goals and taking cues from the deeply personal, often celebratory way we think about food. They could also become mindful of seasonal shifts and regional differences, taking a page from the exploding popularity of farmer’s markets and a Michael Pollan-esque philosophy toward eating.

A more evolved grocery app, then, might help me reach specific goals: I want my family of four to eat a more plant-based diet; or I want to take better advantage of local produce and cook seasonally. Grocery retailers could become more niche, “like a magazine telling me how I need to live. I’m paying [them] to be an editor,” Kelley says.

Such a future would be a salve, maybe, for losing a part of my life that had once been ripe with possibility. I was a universe away from the days when I would ride my bike to the farmer’s market after work to see what was good, or pick up a bag of $1 oysters that my new husband and I would pry open with a screwdriver in our dingy galley kitchen. For the time being, convenience was a much bigger need — and even with its problems, Instacart was still more convenient than a trip to the store.

But this was just a season of life, I reminded myself, and in a few too-short years I’d have time for that leisurely attitude toward eating again. Or, someone might make a grocery app I actually liked using.

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Schuyler Velasco is Senior Editor for Experience.


Illustration by Cristina Spanò


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