photo by Phillip Pessar
Once or twice a month, I announce to co-workers that I am signing off for a while to pick up prescriptions or ship a package – things I can’t do from self-isolation in my north Florida vacation home.
My colleague Rebecca Pavese recently remarked that when I announce I am “going into town,” she thinks of Pa Ingalls from the “Little House on the Prairie” books. I like the analogy. The long-dormant Montanan in me stirs at the comparison with a man who was self-reliant enough to provide for his family on the distant frontier. Pa needed only occasional access to the goods and services available in the towns that sprung up along the new railroads of the 19th century.
If Pa had Instacart, he might not have gone to town but once or twice a year. Comparing me to him is flattering, if not especially accurate.
It is easy to get carried away by enthusiasm for Instacart and its many home-delivery rivals, but hard to overstate their role in keeping millions of households safely supplied through months of pandemic. For older and more vulnerable people especially, they have been a critical lifeline. These services make everyone safer, even those who don’t use them, by reducing shopper traffic in stores, which facilitates social distancing.
My mother, in her 90s, has not done her own shopping in more than four months; in fact, she has scarcely left her New Jersey home. She is getting most of her groceries delivered from a local supermarket via Instacart, supplemented by a Northeast-focused online grocer, Fresh Direct. Fresh Direct seems to do particularly well with fresh produce and meats, including the kosher meat that my mother requires. Now that her New York Yankees are playing again (at least as of this writing), Mom has everything she needs to outlast the new coronavirus.
My wife – our family’s quartermaster – uses Fresh Direct and Instacart as well. We are also big Amazon Prime shoppers, although we don’t make much use of Amazon’s varied grocery services (Amazon Fresh, Whole Foods and Amazon Prime Now). On a good day, the street in front of the house resembles a distribution center, with trucks coming and going every few minutes.
I have built a closer relationship with Instacart over the past couple of months while camped on my own in northern Florida. COVID-19 never struck my county with the force that it hit South Florida. So, for a few weeks, I did my own masked-and-gloved grocery shopping at the local Publix. But as caseloads started to mount statewide, I self-isolated in a way that – for someone who is not a true frontiersman – is only possible because of today’s gig economy.
About once a week, I place my grocery order on Instacart’s website, which is tied into Publix’s store inventory. This makes it less likely that an item I want will be out of stock. But even if something turns out to be missing, Instacart lets me specify acceptable substitutes, or that no substitution should be made. Instacart serves many stores, including big-box membership outlets like Costco (no Costco membership required), but my county is too remote for most of them. In this area, Publix is my go-to from a selection that includes Target (which is interesting, because Target owns Instacart rival Shipt and uses it in other markets); grocer Aldi; Petco; CVS pharmacy; and Staples. In other words, retailers that sell nearly everything one would need to live and work from home except for prescriptions. I could arrange delivery of prescriptions, too, if I did not choose to fill mine at Publix.
In some places, Instacart sends its own part-time employees to stores to do the shopping. Those Instacart staffers are generally limited to working less than 30 hours per week. But most Instacart shopping and deliveries are made by independent contractors – gig workers – who take on a given job via an app. The shopper who claims the job will go to the store to do the shopping and then deliver the items to the customer’s doorstep. That is not a trivial thing my case, since it is a 15-mile round trip between my home and the nearest Instacart-equipped Publix, with a toll bridge along the way.
I have found these shoppers to be unfailingly polite and professional, and generally quite sweet. They are usually young – many in their 20s, some in their 30s and 40s. The Instacart Shopper app on their mobile devices allows us to communicate via the Instacart website while they shop. Since I am usually working and not watching that tab on my browser, I also give them my cell number so they can text me with any questions. Instacart tells them how much it will pay for each order they handle, but they make most of their money from tips.
You will read this elsewhere, but I will emphasize it here: Tip generously. By default, Instacart will add 5%, and you have the option to remove it. Bear in mind that your shopper is giving up time not just to pick, pack and deliver your order, but also to return to the store to do it again. Shoppers pay for their own gas, although Instacart factors distance into a job’s rate. They are also paying for insurance, and for the car itself – you are saving your own mileage at their expense. Shoppers even have to provide their own insulated bags to keep your frozen and perishable items cold during a delivery.
I default to a 15% tip, but I usually bump it up to 20% if the shopper has been diligent about communicating and choosing attractive produce and meats. Not everyone can afford this; I am lucky that I can. When I tipped a young woman $40 on a $200 order (I was stocking my freezer), I figured that the tip meant a lot more to her than the cost of it did to me. I also figured that it is unacceptably callous to ask someone to pick out nice, wholesome foods for my household, at risk of her own health, without making it genuinely worth her while.
There are many intricacies to the shop-at-home lifestyle. I don’t pretend to be an expert. My wife, after all, is the family quartermaster. But I have seen enough to expect this change in shopping habits to survive the pandemic, even if not at the same intensity. My household has acquired Instacart’s Express membership, which waives most delivery fees and reduces service charges, and Fresh Direct’s DeliveryPass, which does the same and also allows customers to reserve weekly delivery slots. We will easily make up the cost of these annual fees by the time we save on grocery trips, as well as the various waived or reduced fees from the services themselves.
An entire country is learning that we can get by very well at home, thanks to these services and the people who make them possible. I expect it will have a major impact in the way baby boomers approach old age (which is certainly approaching us). “Safer at home” is a phrase that is bound to outlast the pandemic.
There’s nothing wrong with town life for the folks who prefer it. But when you’re out in the country, it’s nice to have the option to bring what town offers to you, rather than make the trip yourself. I think Pa Ingalls would have agreed.