Grocery delivery services are now such a part of our daily lives that the question is no longer whether to sign up for one.
The question is now: Which one?
Shipt and Instacart – two of the most popular grocery delivery services in the U.S. – share quite a few similarities, but they also have a few key differences. We tried out both delivery services and spoke to their users to find out what’s great about each service – and what isn’t so great.
Fees and Membership
Shipt and Instacart are similar in many ways, which we will explore below, but the have very different approaches to membership.
To order your groceries via Shipt, you have to pay for a membership. Users can choose from these plans:
- The annual plan, which is $8.25 a month with a sign-up fee of $99
- The monthly plan, which is $14 a month
Both memberships give users access to exclusive in-app coupons, 24/7 customer service, waived delivery fees for orders over $35 (orders totaling under $35 always have a flat $7 delivery fee) and “on-the-go convenience,” which means you can have your groceries delivered not only to your home, but also to your place of work or wherever you’re staying on vacation.
You do not need to have a membership to use Instacart. Non-members are subsequent to higher service fees during peak delivery windows, and they always have to pay the flat $3.99 delivery fee, but they still receive relatively quick service, according to several non-member users.
Instacart Express is the app’s membership service, and you can pay a one-time fee of $99 for an annual membership, or $9.99 per month, always billed on the same day. Users who sign up for the membership won’t pay delivery fees on orders of $35 or more or peak hour fees.
Whether a membership makes sense for you depends, of course, on your budget, but it also depends on how frequently you plan to use the service. For instance, if you don’t think you’ll use Instacart three or more times a month, the Instacart Express membership may not make sense for you.
The fact that Shipt requires users to have a membership doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for those users, and in fact, none of the users I spoke to complained about paying for the membership.
As anyone with a smartphone knows, an app should be user-friendly to be useful. The apps for Shipt and Instacart both appear to fall under this category. Both apps are colorful and easy to read, with a simple interface.
When you open the app, the top of the page will already display the last store you browsed, as well as the address you used when you set up your account. You’ll also see the icons for your account and shopping cart, and below that is a search bar and the next estimated available delivery time.
Beneath those features, you’ll see several vibrant, almost cartoon-like icons labeled “Buy Again,” Browse,” “On Sale” and more. These icons make it easy to dive right back into a few specific types of shopping: a repeat of your essentials, a look at budget-friendly items and an overview of options to meet a specific need (in this case, fresh produce).
When you open Instacart, you’ll see a link to your account in the top left of the home screen, along with the options to view and change your account. Your cart is on the top right of the home screen. Beneath these two buttons, you’ll see icons labeled “Sales” and “Shopping List.”
The “Sales” section is a breakdown of all the products on sale at every Instacart-compatible store in your area, and the “Shopping List” feature will take you to a new page that’ll help you set up a virtual shopping list.
Below the “Sales” and “Shopping List” icons, you’ll find a list of all of your local stores that are compatible with the app. Instacart’s home screen doesn’t have a search bar, but some would argue it’s easier to click on a specific store and search from there.
Shipt and Instacart both have features that cater to budget-conscious shoppers on their respective home screens, but beyond that, they encourage different behaviors on the part of their users.
Shipt, for example, will bring you to the last store you shopped at and let you jump right back in for a new order, where Instacart wants to offer you the chance to create a shopping list, see the latest coupons and potentially check out a new store.
I preferred the layout of Shipt’s home screen because I found it more eye-catching and slightly easier to use, but I thought Instacart’s home screen was organized better.
I live in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and when I went to use each app to order groceries, my store options on both consisted of a mix of local and national grocery and specialty store chains.
One didn’t seem to have particularly better options than the other for me, but for Christy Elliot, of Stockton, California, Shipt always has better store variety for her.
“Shipt shops at more stores than Instacart,” she said, adding that she’s seen a similar range of stores available from other areas as well as her hometown.
If you visit Shipt’s website, that variety appears to be something the company puts high value on. One of the first messages you’ll see on the site reads: “We know you have your go-to products from your favorite stores. That’s why we deliver from local and national retailers people love – like Target, Petco, or CVS.”
Instacart uses geolocation to connect you directly with the stores in your area. The app will display three stores it says are in your location at the top of the screen — though I’m not sure how accurate this feature is, seeing as it thought I was looking for groceries in a town four hours away from where I actually live. (Then again, it’s Wyoming, so you can’t trust our cell or internet signals, let alone GPS.)
This one is hard to call because it’s so location-specific. If you live in or near a major metropolitan area, your in-person shopping options are already more varied, so it’s no surprise that those residents will see more store variety on both delivery apps, as opposed to those who live in areas with a lower population density.
I realized during my research, for example, that Shipt isn’t even in my city yet, even though I live in a state capital, so I had to use the address of my childhood home in the Chicago suburbs for a fake order.
Which brings me to one of the potential issues with Shipt: the limited number of cities where the service is available. Shipt is currently available in 270 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., while Instacart is available in more than 5,500 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Make sure the service is available in your city before signing up!
Shopping and Ordering
Both Shipt and Instacart offer grocery pickup and delivery services, but several users say they prefer the delivery option (particularly during the pandemic). Both apps offer these services in a way that’s nearly identical, with the exception of a few small features.
When I tested Shipt, I clicked on the “Browse” function to start shopping, and the next screen showed a range of categories, including “Trending” and “Household Essentials.” I liked the “Trending” section because it’s a quick way to see what other people are buying, which is particularly intriguing in the era of COVID-19.
However, when I finished browsing the “Trending” items, the app gave me no back button to return to the other categories, so I had to hit the home button on the bottom left and go back to square one.
I found it easy to use the search bar to find the product I wanted (which only appears once you’ve clicked on the particular store you want to order from). I could also scroll through the “Coupons” and “Popular” sections that appear near the top.
Users who are less tech-savvy should be aware that it’s easy to mistakenly add something to your cart. I accidentally hit the plus sign above a picture of cilantro and noticed if I had tapped twice, it would have added it to my cart immediately.
However, this can be mitigated if you only accidentally tap once. When that happens, you’ll likely see the small pop-up asking for the quantity of product you want to add, and the delete button to the left if you didn’t actually want it.
Both apps use essentially the same process: Pick a store, then browse using the store’s product categories. You can also use the search bar at the top to find something specific.
The only differences are slight variations in functionality. Take the aforementioned example where I accidentally added multiple bundles of cilantro to my cart while testing Instacart. You also can add something by mistake to your Shipt order, but it was more likely to happen when I used Instacart. That gave Shipt a slight edge for me.
Communication and Customer Service
Both Shipt and Instacart allow customers to communicate with the person shopping for them, but Instacart users speak to their shopper via the Instacart app, whereas Shipt users text or call their shopper.
Most people I talked to weren’t bothered by the fact that Shipt doesn’t have a communication function integrated into the app.
One user – Mya Widmyer, of Sarasota, Florida – expressed some frustration with needing to have her phone with her while her shopper was at the store. However, she also said she recognized that items being sold out is common right now because of the pandemic, so she thinks this won’t always be the norm.
That said, Widmyer recommends the app and thinks she’ll continue to use it long after COVID-19. She had such a great experience with one shopper, in fact, that she highly rated him and has subsequently worked with him for most of her orders.
“My orders all go to him if he’s working at that time, so it’s nice to have a familiar face and someone who has kind of gotten to know my shopping style,” Widmyer said. “He also brought me flowers one time I ordered a bunch of soup and medication because I was sick!”
Those who have used Instacart say they like using the app to communicate with their shopper.
Sarah Horen, of Cheyenne, Wyoming, said she loves knowing when something is out of stock and being able to give other options to her shopper in real time, as opposed to finding out something was out of stock when she received her order.
“Every shopper we’ve had has done an awesome job shopping for us, whether it is picking good replacements or grabbing fresh produce,” she said. “Whether it is picking good replacements or grabbing fresh produce.”
Another user said they like that Instacart allows them to track the progress of an order, which is not offered by Shipt. Instacart customers can see exactly what their shopper has already put in their cart, letting them know exactly where the shopper is within the process of completing the order.
Your preference will depend on how you like to communicate with your shopper, but I gave Instacart extra props for having everything integrated in the app and for including an order tracker that keeps customers informed.
The delivery processes are pretty similar, in that you pick a window of time, and ideally that’s when you receive your groceries. However, users will find the services define their respective delivery windows slightly differently from each other.
The biggest difference between the apps — other than the way shoppers communicate — is arguably the period of time in which people are told to expect their groceries. Shipt offers shorter delivery windows of just an hour, which has worked out for Boston resident Christina Muscarella.
Muscarella doesn’t have a car in the city, so grocery delivery was already more convenient even before the pandemic, but she said it’s now the absolute best way to get her groceries.
“I gave it a try and I love it,” Muscarella said. “The fact that I can still get same-day delivery is fantastic to me. An example is that I ordered my groceries around 6:30 p.m. (today) and got them dropped off at my door by 8 p.m.”
Instacart, on the other hand, offers two-hour time windows.
For some users, like Christy Elliott, this is a good thing.
“Instacart is smart,” she said. “Shipt should do that too. It would limit the customers’ expectations of actually getting [their order] within that one-hour window, on-time, with Shipt.”
Which service has the edge here could depend on several factors, particularly based on the number of shoppers in your city and how many people use the service. However, some users say Instacart may be doing something right by giving their shoppers a larger delivery window in case something goes wrong and the delivery takes longer than planned.
Niki Kottman is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.
Abubakar his MA Economics from Concordia University in Montreal and BA Economics from the University of British Columbia, with special emphasis on environmental and industrial economics. He has written on a variety of different topics including Bitcoin and finance.