by Matan Josephy, Opinions Writer
graphic by Emily Zhang
Going grocery shopping has never been a simple endeavor, even when we could go outside. At home, you draw up that list and make that budget, but we’ve all been there — as soon as you walk through those automatic sliding doors, it’s over. Those new chips look so good, bowtie pasta is in stock, the sliced turkey is on sale and, of course, the chocolate chip scones from that glass container rope you in. Eventually, you exit the store with a cart that holds virtually none of the products from your list yet is beyond your budget.
As quarantine continues, a not-quite-new innovation has turned itself into an inextricable part of American culture: the grocery delivery service.
Instead of spending precious time browsing through shelves, grocery delivery applications allow users to build a “virtual cart” based on what’s available at a given market. All you have to do is walk out your front door to find them perched on the stopp, courier nowhere in sight. Think Amazon, but instead of a new computer or book, it’s a bag of vegetables, meat and whatever the impulse purchase of the day happens to be. Often, little to no human contact is involved in this transaction — making it an optimal option for even the most devout social-distancers.
The perceived ease of use and practicality of grocery delivery apps comes second to real question — can they really take the place of old-school, in-person shopping? Upon first glance, the answer is yes . . . for the most part. Before the pandemic, there was a lower demand for such apps. Stable supply and a steady amount of users enabled companies such as Amazon Fresh and Walmart Grocery to quickly deliver ordered-food pre-COVID-19.
Now, however, because of the spike in demand, deliveries are often slightly delayed. For example, on Instacart, a front-runner within the now-booming grocery delivery industry, same-day delivery used to be a common option, making the app a practical and reliable one for many. But with the surge in coronavirus cases, available delivery windows have gone from being typically within less than a day to within two, three or more.
Users of smaller apps such as Target’s delivery service still receive deliveries within one or two days, and same-day delivery is a much more common feature; larger apps such as Amazon Fresh have seen increased difficulty finding an open delivery slot, delayed deliveries, and items quickly becoming unavailable, all as delivery fees have gone up, giving consumers an overall worse deal while exposing workers to the dangers of contracting coronavirus without adequate protection or benefits.
Pricing, arguably the most important factor in choosing a service, varies across apps and supermarkets and depends on the availability of foods; as demand for a certain product either stays constant or rises while its supply stays stable or lowers, the online price increases. Looking at general price trends for many of the top apps, however, prices are generally above those found in physical stores.
When paired with delivery charges, only some of which have been waived, delivery services are accessible only to select portions of our community. While Amazon Fresh, Ships and other apps require a paid membership to use their services, several others, including Peapod and Walmart Grocery include optional subscriptions for fees — typically near $100 annually or $10-15 monthly — that enable some degree of free shipping. This can often be especially attractive to customers, for free or reduced shipping is often otherwise given only when a price threshold has been met, if at all.
These options are significant, as shipping fees can raise costs by a considerable margin — they range across companies but tend to hover near $10, with Instacart offering the cheapest deal at a $4 baseline. Service fees and tips are present across the board, but vary between optional or mandatory across companies. Regardless of which app you ultimately choose, the price you’ll end up paying as you click the bright “checkout” button at the end of your purchase will almost without fail be above what you would pay in a physical grocery store for the exact same items.
In the end, whether or not these apps are “worth it” is a question more complicated than it seems. What services like Amazon Fresh and Walmart Grocery offer during this pandemic is something more substantial than just a bag of food at your door — it’s a safety measure in a time where safety is scarce, even if it is for our ultimate benefit. For those who use grocery delivery apps, they are a simple, practical and care-free, if slightly more expensive, option to obtain food. For others, the potential risks of going out to get food are nullified by the lower prices and simple act of getting outside. Ultimately, grocery delivery services, being in high demand, prove to be an essential for some, during a time of social distancing.