So you wanna know “how does Instacart work”? Well, here’s a confession of mine. Until a month ago, I’d never used Instacart. I knew about it but had written it off in favor of other same-day delivery offerings.
When it first launched, Instacart wasn’t even available in my area.
But when it finally came to my city, I wasn’t an Instacart shopper because I saw that stores marked up their grocery prices on the app (on top of Instacart’s delivery fees), and I just didn’t like it. (I still don’t. More on that below.) It was hard to tell how big the markups were, and the whole thing felt less than transparent.
Even when Instacart introduced their own manufacturer coupons for shoppers within the Instacart app, I still paid no mind because I couldn’t get past the idea of inflated pricing. With rising grocery prices as they were, how could I afford to pay even more?
Then one day, Instacart began delivering for Costco in my area, and the temptation to save time and get groceries delivered was just too great. So I caved. I placed three Instacart Costco orders in a single month.
But can I afford to continue this expensive new habit? I decided I’d do my research. This — ladies, sisters, and beautiful humans of the KCL community — is everything you’ll ever need to know about Instacart: what it costs, whether I think it’s worth it, and hopefully every other thing you need to know to decide whether it’s right for you.
Here’s a quick overview of how Instacart works.
Like Uber Eats and Doordash, the majority of the shoppers on Instacart are freelancers who get alerts when a new order is placed and have the opportunity to claim it. In most cases, your driver is also your shopper. They’re paid by the hour ($7 – $10 depending on the state they live in), plus they get a few bucks in tips for each order, and they get to keep 100% of the tips they receive.
How much does Instacart cost, and is it worth it?
A paid Instacart membership costs $99 per year and gets you free grocery delivery on all orders over $35. But you don’t have to pay for a membership (they call it Instacart+) in order to shop with Instacart.
Most of us probably don’t need to shell out the $99/year fee when the benefits of being a member are usually only worth a few bucks per order. You’d need to place an order of around $100 at least every other week just to break even. For those who are fully committing to using Instacart regularly though, there’s probably a nice pile of annual savings for joining the paid Instacart+ program versus not joining.
Canceling your Instacart+ membership is simple. Detailed instructions are provided on their website.
TIP: If you’re a Chase cardholder, you’ll get a free Instacart+ membership. Sapphire Reserve cardmembers can receive one year free, Sapphire Preferred cardmembers get six months free, and Freedom and Slate cardmembers get three months free.
What does the $99/yr Instacart+ membership get you?
Without a membership, all Instacart orders have a $3.99 shipping fee once the $35 delivery minimum is met. (The shipping fee is higher if you don’t meet the minimum.)
- Instacart+ members have $0 delivery fees (typically $3.99 for nonmembers).
Regular Instacart orders are subject to all kinds of unspecified fees: heavy order fees (for orders totaling 50 or more pounds), alcohol service fees, long-distance fees (for drives over 30 minutes), service fees (overhead that goes to Instacart Inc), and more.
- Instacart+ members pay reduced service fees and alcohol fees. They’ll still pay heavy order fees.
Instacart pickup is only available at select stores. It’s a newer program that was launched in 2020. So before you know if this is a value-add, you’d want to open your app and browse stores to see if pickup is an option.
- Instacart+ members get 5% credit back for picking up their orders instead of having them delivered.
How much are Instacart fees, and who gets them?
Instacart has so many fees, it can feel impossible to keep them all straight. And to complicate matters, they don’t publish the fees anywhere for us to see. And some of them, like the heavy fee, don’t get charged until after the order is picked up.
There’s no question that the fee structure and the lack of transparency around the fees are the worst parts of Instacart that can make you question if Instacart is even worth it. I placed a few orders while writing this story and quizzed my delivery drivers at my doorstep to learn as much as I could about each fee type, what it costs, and where the money goes:
Service Fee: 2% – 5%
Every Instacart order is subject to a 5% service fee which is collected by Instacart Inc. None of the service fee goes to the driver. Instacart+ users will pay reduced fees, typically 2% – 3.5% per order.
Heavy Order Fee: $5 – $15+
Instacart orders over 50 total pounds will be charged a heavy order fee, usually $5 – $15+. My recent order had two 20-pound bags of ice, and my heavy fee was nearly $10. A few notes:
- Drivers receive some of the heavy order fee. It’s confusing because customers are charged based on total order weight, and Instacart shoppers are paid based on how many individual items weigh over eight pounds.
- Heavy fees may be applied after your order is placed. It’s said that this is because shoppers used to add heavy items in order to get their drivers more pay and then canceled the heavy items from the order later.
Alcohol Service Fee: $2 – $12+
Instacart orders containing alcohol are charged an additional fee and require ID at checkout and upon drop-off. No portion of Instacart alcohol delivery fees go to Instacart drivers. My recent order of one $10.99 bottle of Prosecco was charged a $2 alcohol fee, and another order with a $50.01 bottle of Prosecco (cheers, bitches) landed me a $3.20 alcohol fee. I was using my free trial of Instacart+, which means the rates I paid were already reduced.
Based on what I found out from my local drivers, the Instacart alcohol delivery fees you can expect to see will look something like this.
- $0 – $35 of alcohol: Around $3 ($1.60 for Instacart+ members)
- $35.01 – $75 of alcohol: Around $6 ($3.20 for Instacart+ members)
- $75.01 – $110 of alcohol: $9 ($4.80 for Instacart+ members)
- $110.01 or more of alcohol: $12 ($6.40 for Instacart+ members)
Long-Distance Fee: Varies
This fee applies to Instacart+ and non-Instacart+ orders from retailers located outside your standard delivery radius (typically 30 minutes or further). Drivers are already paid by mileage from the store to the recipient’s address.
How much should I tip Instacart?
My Instacart shopper told me that drivers can see the tip you preselected when they’re deciding whether or not to take your gig. So better tips could help your order get fulfilled more quickly.
Your Instacart shoppers can also choose to go above and beyond, doing things like texting you if the strawberries at the store don’t look good and asking if you want to swap for organic or something else. Some shoppers have texted to ask if I have any last-minute additions before they leave the store. If you appreciate your shopper, you can increase their tip after your purchase. You actually have 14 days to increase it. (And only two hours to decrease the tip.)
Are Instacart prices higher than in-store prices?
At many stores, yes. Instacart prices are 10% – 30% higher than the shelf price at the store. These price markups are what initially turned me off from Instacart years ago.
Luckily, as the app has grown and built formal partnerships with some grocery stores and many retail stores, those markups have, in some cases, gone away. But where they exist, I still don’t like them. There’s very little transparency around Instacart pricing. Unless you have your prices memorized, it can be hard to recognize a 10% markup from a 25% markup, making it nearly impossible to keep a handle on your grocery budget.
Let’s take Instacart’s Costco prices, for example. I compared prices on over 20 items to see how they stack up. For Costco members shopping Instacart via Costco.com, markups ranged from less than 5% to nearly 30% on a heavy bag of dog food. For those who shop through the Instacart app without a Costco membership, markups are significantly worse, with an average close to 20% above retail price.
Here’s how they stack up:
The Target Instacart markups are more consistent. Of the 15 items I compared, all were between 14% and 17% higher than in-store prices, with an average markup of just below 16%. I’ll pass on Instacart there and choose Target same-day delivery every time.
What stores have delivery from Instacart?
The list of stores partnering with Instacart grows every year. Below are some of the chains you’ve probably heard of, and I’ve made note of which ones have price markups in the Instacart app. Even membership-only stores like Costco and Sam’s Club are available to nonpaying members through the Instacart app. The markups will cost you, but if you don’t shop much at either store, ordering a favorite item through Instacart is another way to shop at Costco without a membership.
If you don’t see your store on this list and you want to know what their policy is on marking up prices for Instacart shoppers, select “view pricing policy” at the top of the store’s landing page in the Instacart app. The policy details will probably be vague, but any language that’s not “everyday low prices” or “same prices as in store” means there’s a markup at play.
How to Get Instacart Promo Codes
Instacart coupons are easy enough to find.
The best way to be in the loop on new Instacart coupons is by subscribing to their email list. Expect to receive coupons worth $10 – $30 off your first order at a store you haven’t ordered from before.
Paying for your Instacart order for the first time with Klarna or Paypal is another good way to get a coupon.
Here are a few discounts to check out:
- Sign up as a new user with this link to get Instacart free delivery on your first order of $10+
- Try KLARNA10 to save $10 off a $100 order when you pay with Klarna (Klarna is a pay-in-4 app)
- Try linking your PayPal account for $35 off your next Instacart order
- Try code A23C82 to save $20 on your first order
- Try code WELCOME15 to save $15 on your first $50 order
- Refer a friend and get $10 off your next order once they make their first purchase. They’ll get $10 off, too. Look in your Instacart app for your personal referral code.
Related: Our best hacks for how to get free Uber Eats.
Instacart also has manufacturer coupons, and it links up with Ibotta for rebates.
To shop the sales at your local store, click the “Deals” tab in the Instacart app. There you’ll see both sale prices and items with eligible manufacturer coupons you can redeem with just a tap. Then read our primer on how coupons work.
You’ll also notice some promotions span multiple stores, like the $15 back on $50 purchase of select P&G laundry products. Make sure you reach the minimum to see savings in your cart. Or shop this week’s laundry deals now.
You can also link Instacart to your Ibotta account. Within the Ibotta app, navigate to Instacart and click “Link Instacart Account.” Toggle on “Share purchase history.” You’ll get an email confirmation from Ibotta once the account is successfully linked. Instacart won’t provide you with a paper receipt, so the only way to get rebates is to link your account. You’ll receive an itemized receipt in your Instacart account.
Save an extra $2 on every order when you choose a slower delivery window.
The quickest and most consistent way to save a couple bucks on every Instacart purchase is to select a delivery window that’s just a little slower than the fastest option. Often the slowest window is still within two hours of placing your order, so it’s easy to claw back some of that Instacart overhead.
TIP: Your order will always get picked up. Part of the way Instacart ensures this is by assigning a growing bounty to its drivers for picking up a stale order.
Link your loyalty cards to earn rewards on any Instacart purchase.
Instacart is set up to link your loyalty accounts to your purchases. Stores these days are obsessed with your data, and they wouldn’t have signed on with Instacart if it meant losing visibility to what you’re buying.
For those of us using gas rewards, this is good news. We’ll keep accruing savings.
But if you’re shopping products from the weekly ad and hoping to get those advertised loyalty savings, don’t hold your breath. The price you see in the Instacart app is the price you’ll pay. If granola bars are buy four boxes, save $4 instantly in the weekly ad and you buy four boxes through Instacart, the likely outcome is that the store ends up giving the discount to Instacart, but you never see it. Your store receipt essentially becomes Instacart’s receipt. Instacart sends you a digital version that doesn’t necessarily match the price they paid in the store.
Bottom line: Instacart is great at saving you time and often terrible at saving you money.
What will Instacart deliver?
Instacart will deliver just about anything. They just announced a plan for delivering big and bulky items, too. I’ve had Instacart deliver ice cream, rotisserie chicken, champagne, and heavy cat food. But that’s not all they’ll deliver.
Does Instacart deliver alcohol?
Yes. Instacart delivers alcohol for a fee. Shoppers must enter their date of birth before checkout and must be home when the delivery arrives. The driver must see a photo ID in order to leave the alcohol at your doorstep. Instacart’s policy doesn’t allow alcohol orders to be left unattended, to be delivered to anyone visibly intoxicated, or to be delivered to a retail business or college campus.
Does Instacart deliver cigarettes?
No. Instacart doesn’t deliver cigarettes. They won’t deliver any tobacco products at all.
Does Instacart deliver prescriptions?
Instacart offers prescription delivery from participating Costco pharmacies in the United States except in Arkansas, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Your Instacart shopper is required to scan your ID when delivering your prescription. Some states require customer signatures when delivering prescriptions. Instacart doesn’t allow prescriptions to be left unattended. Someone 18 or over must be present to receive the order.
Instacart offers prescription delivery from participating Wegmans pharmacies in the United States. See the detailed instructions specifically for Wegmans.
Instacart only delivers over-the-counter medicine to individuals 18 or older. ID is required upon drop off, just like it is with alcohol.
Does Instacart deliver flowers?
Yes, Instacart delivers fresh flowers from grocery stores, Costco, and even potted flowers from Lowe’s. If you’re sending flowers as a gift for someone, there’s a place in the checkout process to mark your delivery as a gift.
Does Instacart deliver to hotels?
Yes. Instacart delivers to hotels! Whether or not the driver is permitted to bring the order to the lobby or up to the room depends on the hotel’s policy. If you want your driver to bring your groceries to your hotel room, be sure to alert the front desk.
How late does Instacart deliver?
As of fall 2021, Instacart makes deliveries 24/7 for select stores including 7-Eleven, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Safeway’s 24-hour locations. For stores that aren’t open 24 hours a day, Instacart often matches store hours. It’s 6:42 a.m. local time as I write this article, and I just popped open my app to find multiple grocery stores that would deliver to me before 7:30 a.m. This kind of power is dangerous.
So that’s the lowdown on Instacart. As for my conclusion, I’ve decided that shopping Instacart at stores where no price markups exist (in my town, that’s CVS, Walgreens, and the local Kroger affiliate) is a perfectly good option. I’ll avoid purchasing alcohol and heavy items because I don’t want the extra fees. I’ll always save $2 by selecting a slower delivery window. And I’m not upgrading to Instacart+ just yet. I’ll pay the $3.99 delivery fee.
And as far as Costco is concerned, shopping through Instacart is clearly a bad idea. So I’m gonna do my best to resist, but with that level of convenience just a click a way, I don’t have the resolve to say I’ll never do it again.