How to buy groceries online: Tips for shopping in quarantine

Grocery shoppers are facing the same story all across the country: no delivery or pickup windows are available on popular services like Instacart, Amazon Prime Fresh, Target, or Walmart Grocery. Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing, people don’t want to have to go to the grocery store and risk infection. As a result, delivery and pickup windows are booked up days, or even weeks in advance.

The huge demand for grocery delivery and pickup is causing a cascade of other problems: At the end of March, Instacart, Whole Foods, and Amazon all had workers walk off the job or call in sick, demanding better working conditions. They wanted access to protective gear, like gloves and masks, as well as hazard pay for spending much of their shifts in contact with others.

Though the companies have made some changes, labor group Gig Workers Collective noted that workers still don’t have hazard pay or sick leave. On top of everything else, some people have been promising Instacart workers big tips, only to change the amount to zero after delivery. For some workers, tips make up half their income.

The incredible demand has even led Amazon to place new grocery delivery customers on a waiting list, the company announced on Sunday.

With so many states under shelter-in-place orders, more and more people are relying on grocery delivery. We tested out different tricks across the country — though we didn’t actually order any groceries for pickup or delivery, so those slots could go to people in needs. Here are some grocery shopping tips that will hopefully help you stay home and stay healthy.

Amazon Go Grocery Store

Look local on Instacart

Instacart has managed to partner with many smaller grocery chains, from Sprouts Market in states including Arizona to Cosentino’s in Kansas and Missouri. Right now, this has upsides and downsides. The partnership has allowed these chains to get the infrastructure for online ordering in place, but in some places, the demand is overwhelming the number of available shoppers. Try switching between different stores on Instacart to find a local option that might have more delivery capacity.

Local stores that haven’t partnered with Instacart or another service are also struggling. Sedano’s in Miami had no pickup openings when I looked. Much will depend on where you live, as to whether there are enough people able to shop for others and how well equipped the stores are for online orders.

Try pickup instead of delivery

Many grocery chains allow you to order for pickup. The process is typically simple — you order what you want, drive to the store, then call to let them know you’re there. A worker will bring your groceries to your trunk, already bagged up, and you can drive away with a fresh load of food.

I was able to get delivery or pickup times for my Abilene, Texas, Walmart order and one for Kroger in Little Rock, Arkansas. In both instances, neither was using Instacart. For Kroger pickup orders, its own workers gather your groceries. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from several people that they’ll place a Kroger order on a Monday, and the earliest pickup time will be much later in the week, like a Sunday. Still, it’s quicker for a store worker to deliver bags to your car than to your door.

Pickup availability will also vary based on where you live. In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I could only find a shipping option through Kroger, which means I couldn’t add fresh items, like eggs, to my list. It’s difficult to find stores that offer it in Seattle, where sprawling parking lots are in short supply. Other major chains like Kroger (which owns QFC, Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, and more stores) also have pickup options, including many Albertsons, which owns Safeway, Jewel-Osco, Tom Thumb, and more.

Set reminders to keep checking for open slots

Instacart logo on a bag
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

I tried to order groceries from Fred Meyer a couple of times throughout the day, including at 11:30 p.m, with little luck. The next morning at 8:30 a.m., though, there was finally an availability. The moral of the story is, be persistent and keep checking back.

Amazon Prime Fresh typically opens up slots around midnight local time, so if you’re willing to stay up late, that might be your best option. Other companies refresh their availability at different times and ma1ny of these services will save the items in your cart, so you can keep checking back and hopefully get through the process fairly quickly once something opens up. Because of all the delays and demand, it definitely makes sense to plan ahead, if at all possible.

Know all your options

If you’re having trouble with one delivery or pickup service and you have the time to shop around, you might want to look for other choices. I already mentioned Instacart and Shipt, but there is also Amazon Prime (available nationwide); Fresh Direct (some East Coast states); Peapod (some East Coast states); Mercato (it says it serves more than 6,000 zip codes “from more than 1,000 independently owned stores across the country”); as well as chains like Kroger, Albertsons, Walmart, Target, and Ahold Delhaize.

Use subscription boxes for your groceries

There are some services, like Boxed, that can ship bulk items that you might not need right away. I found this a bit of a mixed bag. There was no toilet paper or cat food (both were all sold out), and some items were far more expensive than elsewhere. For example, an 18-pack of Bubbly water was $13, when a 12-pack is selling on Amazon for $4.62.

There are plenty of meal kit delivery deals going on right now. Services like Blue Apron, Marley Spoon, Home Chef, and more deliver all the ingredients for dinners, along with recipes. These can be pricier than picking out groceries yourself, usually costing at least $9 a meal. (Check out a roundup of some of the best meal kit options here.)

Misfits Markets, Imperfect Foods, and From the Farmer can deliver produce weekly, and some offer dairy and meat products as well. If your area isn’t covered by one of those services, looking for a local, community-supported agriculture option might be available.

Good luck and remember to tip your delivery person well.

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