Last mile groceries
My apartment happens to be above a Whole Foods in San Francisco and my friends often say to me that if they lived above a Whole Foods they would eat there constantly. While I like Whole Foods, it doesn’t have everything I need or want unfortunately and I don’t always have time to shop for myself.
That’s where services like Instacart, Amazon Fresh, Google Shopping Express, Safeway.com, and Postmates come in to hopefully save me time.
As a startup guy and engineer, I think the last mile logistics space is super interesting. It’s a hot space and ripe for disruption and it’s fun to watch different companies attempt to survive in it. Uber, Lyft, Flywheel, etc are all trying battle it out with ride-sharing, but for me, groceries are a bit more complex of a problem. Bigger inventories, more possibility for optimization, and a bigger set of UX issues to solve for the end user.
Not all of these services are built the same. Some focusing on instant gratification and convenience over optimization and having a cheap scalable model right away.
Instant gratification scale (right taking the least amount of time and left taking the most):
I started using Safeway.com before most of these services even existed. It’s a classic, Web 1.0 experience. By no means is that bad. It’s consistent, functional, and has an ok user experience.
Safeway has a more complete inventory on their site than most but it’s not the fastest on-the-go kind of experience to order from out of all the options today. I have to sit down and plan out what I need when I use it. More often than not, I just end up reordering my regular staples (milk, paper towels, pet food, sandwich bread, etc).
There is no mobile experience for safeway.com so I have to break out the laptop to get anything. Delivery usually takes over 24 hours to arrive unless I feel like getting up before sunrise to make an order for that afternoon. Safeway offers a discount for having allowing a bigger delivery window as well.
Safeway does not give you the instant gratification experience you find from Postmates or Instacart but it makes up for it with a better price on everything and having a complete inventory of these I shop for including produce and refrigerated items that Amazon and Google can’t conveniently handle on their own.
Instacart hires shoppers to go to the stores and buy for you directly. The shoppers get to work immediately to make your purchases and bring them back directly from the store to your door. They don’t keep inventory outside of their own smaller Instacart Plus store.
Instacart is pretty quick, sometimes arriving in 1-2 hours after an order, unless they are busy and then you may have to wait a few hours. The user experience of the site and app are really pretty good as well.
The shared cart feature is my favorite of Instacart. If you have a roommate you can share a URL for them to add things to the cart.
My biggest gripe with Instacart is that the prices on Instacart are not the same as what the store charges. Instacraft makes up their own prices which is generally more expensive and I never know by how much. Shopping at only the Instacraft Plus store (which is often cheaper) gives a better value but the selection is much worse.
The recipes part of the app is also interesting but the vast majority of the recipes only can be completed by ordering the items from Whole Foods (pretty silly given that I live above Whole Foods).
When Instacart lost Trader Joes, I lost a huge part of the reason I continued to use Instacart. Trader Joes has three items I always stock that I can’t get anywhere else.
I still use Instacart occasionally but usually only when I need more than 5 items (basically anything more than what a Postmates courier would have trouble carrying) and I still need ASAP.
Amazon Fresh is the weirdest service out of the lot. I love Amazon Prime. Half the things I buy I get from Amazon. I figured I would give their same day service a try.
With Amazon Fresh, you pay a yearly fee, just like Prime. This gets you same day delivery on a lot of times on Amazon.com which makes it pretty apealing for that alone.
Amazon maintains their own inventory and their selection isn’t that wide. Until just recently they couldn’t handle refrigerated items because of how they work logistically (drivers making multiple stops throughout the day). This is the same limitation of Google Express Shopping. Recently this changed, so now if you order refrigerated items, they bring it in a big cooler with dry ice and (supposedly) pick it up on your next order.
After ordering a few items, Amazon sent me the Amazon Dash device. Amazon Dash is a wifi enabled device that has a barcode reader and microphone so that you can scan items to (hopefully) order them quickly from their site.
This device though has yet to work well enough to be useful as most of the items I scan are not available (it won’t even offer me stock from regular Amazon either). The voice recognition also doesn’t really work well on name brand name things, usually reducing down to only working on just simple nouns (“milk” works but “Clover 2% Milk” fails).
The user experience for adding the items from the Dash list into my cart is flat out awful. On mobile it’s completely unusable because it’s impossible to scroll, nearly everything matches incorrectly, and it is completely unresponsive when you add items to your cart. The web version is only moderately better. It’s actually better using the desktop site on my iPhone then it is to use the app.
I also had a problem with Amazon Fresh just dropping things off on the floor of my apartment’s mail room instead of bringing them up to my door. Sometimes they would call me after leaving for me to run down there to grab everything. I live in SOMA in San Francisco and our mail room isn’t the most secure. Items have walked off and it’s a hassle to contact them about missing things. Now Amazon offers attended delivery so now they need my signature before leaving which has resolved most of those issues.
At this point I’ve written off Amazon Fresh except for same day delivery of non-grocery products.
Google Shopping Express
Google’s shopping service came out nearly a year ago. It’s somewhere between Amazon Fresh and Instacart in how it works. Google doesn’t have it’s own inventory, instead shopping at local stores like Instacart, but they operate logistically like Amazon Fresh. Google Express Shopping also has an annual fee like Amazon Fresh.
They can’t bring you things right away so anything perishable is not an option (so no milk or eggs at all). The prices are the store prices (or close enough I can’t tell). The store selection is a lot different though, having Target and Costco on there.
I had a similar issue with Google Shopping Express leaving items in my mail room and leaving. Since they have a Safeway like delay and lack of refrigerated items though, I just don’t use it very often. They do have Costco so I sometimes use them to get large boxes of mineral water or Diet Coke.
I’ve been using Postmates since early beta (before even their GetItNow service was launched). I love Postmates. Anything in under an hour. They hire couriers to go basically anywhere, buy nearly anything, and just bring it to you right away. They are not strictly a grocery shopping service but they are perfectly capable of doing that.
Given that the couriers are often on bikes and that there is a flat service percentage charge on all deliveries, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to order $100+ in groceries through them. However, Postmates is there, almost 24/7, in a pinch for anything I need. If I’m cooking, I don’t have to leave the kitchen. Postmates will get it and bring to me right away.
Losing the grocery store experience
Each of these services has some advantage over the others that may trigger me to use in some cases over the others.
One thing that is missing when you move to rely on these services is that you end up outsourcing your selection to someone else. For produce and meat that could be problematic. When I go the store, I often go hunting for that item with the farthest out expiration date. Services like Amazon or Safeway that need to unload their inventory, you may not get the best items they have, just the items they need to unload first. Instacart now has it’s own inventory and partners with Whole Foods so their interests may flip from being only my personal shopper to instead helping out their partner’s interests.
There is also something you miss out on when you don’t personally get to pick the best tomatoes and bananas at the store too. I generally distrust the quality of the produce that were picked for me as being the best possible at the store. Meat, bread, and cheese selection goes the same way.
I also have a hard time discovering new products after relying on these sites for a while. This is one area you can tell Safeway put some time into this problem by giving you a discount on delivery for adding something sponsored to your cart. The other services are not as incentivised. If you are not buying processed/prepackaged foods it’s not a big deal I guess.
Someday I may do all my shopping exclusively online and I’m not sure what that means for the brick and mortar store I live above in about 10 years.
It’s very possible that physical grocery stores may go the way of Blockbuster. Replaced with local distribution centers where a fleet of drones will bring the Chia drink as I want it, straight to my hands, with the press of a button on my smartwatch.