Spend more than 90 seconds amid the grubby comment board of any major news website on a story like this, and you’ll quickly discover that the services I’m about to discuss will cause the imminent downfall of modern civilization; what salacious topic am I about to discuss you might ask, sex, drugs, rock n roll?

Close for sure, but the topic of this article is the myriad new online grocery options available in Salt Lake City. From reading online commentary, groceries to the doorstep are the modern day equivalent of the fall of Rome for some. Quick, grab my chaise lounge, a bunch of grapes and some guys with palm fronds, I have a society to collapse a rotisserie chicken to order.

I can only imagine those rabid commenters are essentially masochists. For all intents and purposes the modern day grocery shopping experience strays between tedious and miserable. No I’m not talking about your fevered remembrances of strolling idyllically through the suburbs of Paris that one Summer, gleefully bounding from patisserie to boulangerie. I’m talking about the utilitarian struggle of trudging through fluorescent lit aisles, wearily throwing box after can after packet into your cart. Calories and care be damned, who cares, get me out of here, get me in front of Netflix and my bag of Cheetos.

If you hadn’t already guessed, I am an unashamed fan of online shopping and the comforts of my chair. Sue me. Note: please don’t sue me. Contrary to the ramblings of angry Internet posters tapping out their delirium single-finger tap by tap, these modern day delivery services are more than just a lazy opt out though.

At the top of pro list, you can check off time savings and convenience; a big shop (you know the one right) can easily eat up an hour or two of your life; feel free to waste more time and energy shopping at the weekend, or if you hit up Costco during peak zombie apocalypse – sorry – I mean sampling hours. At some point you have to ask yourself how much your own time is worth.

More importantly, I personally find online ordering keeps shopping lists focused and precise, lean and taut. Sat in the comfort of my home (replete with those grapes and toga clad attendants of course) I’m able to avoid hangry impulse purchases and create a shopping list thats balanced and constructive. I’ve yet to see one of my online orders devolve into a frazzled pile of frozen dinners, alcohol and tears.

Online shopping opens up a world of possibilities for those with accessibility issues, something that few physical stores cater to in any meaningful sense in my experience. Navigating deals and specials is a cinch, temporary vehicle problems can be conquered, planning, easy price comparisons – just a few more reasons where shopping online can be a clear winner over in the person experience. There are many more compelling reasons to ditch the cart.

With all of that rambling preface in order, if you’re new to these services, lets talk about the major players in town. Some offer delivery, some offer drive up, some offer both. For reference, drive up lets you order online then an employee will shop and load up your car directly on arrival – you rarely have to leave your car. Lets look at the major players in town:

Instacart - shopping beginning
Instacart – shopping beginning

Instacart

Who and how: Instacart was the first business to really make a splash here in Salt Lake City. Instacart are a national operation that work with existing bricks and mortar businesses. They act as a middle man, shopping at the store on your behalf, then delivering right to your desk or doorstep. Here in Salt Lake City, Instacart will shop and ship from: Smith’s, Natural Grocers, Whole Foods, Sprout’s Farmers Markets, Costco, CVS, Petco, Smart Food service and Sur La Table.

Ordering: Via your computer, tablet or phone you can use the Instacart website or app to compose your order. First up, you need to select one store per order; no you can’t have your shopper hit up Costco and then Smith’s before heading your way. Though you can conceivably place multiple orders should you wish. Both website and app are well designed and for the most part give extensive access to the products you’d expect to find in store. As Instacart work as an intermediary I find there can be increased mismatch with actual stock levels versus what you find in the app.

Execution: Instacart are very slick in this department. If you have the Instacart app, you’ll be notified as your shopper heads to the store, begins shopping, and throughout the whole process if issues crop up. If an item is out of stock they’ll message you through the system in real time with replacement or cancellation options. One time, and rather impressively, I had a shopper take a picture of several freezer cabinets for me to choose a suitable replacement. On the flipside, other times I’ve had shoppers completely disregard my request. If in doubt you can specify possible replacement alternatives ahead of time during your order.

The app updates you when ordering is complete and your order is on its way to you. You can even track your shopper on a real time map from the store to your house. This means if you switched out grocery shopping for a trip to the bar, you can time your own trip home to perfectly coincide with your groceries – time for one more beer. Not that I’ve ever done that, no.

The price:. Instacart offer several pricing models which can be initially confusing. Delivery is normally priced $5.99 per order and can often be arranged as quickly as the next hour or two. The delivery fee can be waived if you signup to their yearly Express membership for $99. Individual items can be priced exactly the same as in store (in the case of partnered businesses like Whole Foods) but can be a little higher on others – Smith’s and Costco being notable. This means the bigger your order, the higher the in store price differential can be. There’s also a variable service fee and it isn’t clear to me how this is calculated or what it contributes to.

Harmons shopper text message
Harmons shopper text message

Harmons

Who and how: The popular local chain recently added delivery to their range of services. This joined the existing drive up service.

Ordering: All done through the Harmons website, there is no app available. The website is possibly the weakest component of the whole experience, it can be hard to find the actual e-shop service and from there its far from the most intuitive design. With a little patience, trial and error most will be able to place an order without too much fuss though. If you find yourself ordering by noon you can usually snag a delivery or drive up time slot the same day.

Execution: Very very solid, perhaps the strongest player in town in my experience. As your shopper travels the store, they’ll text you if they have any queries or if any items are out of stock. Shoppers are patient, accommodating and very friendly. When the shopper begins picking your items they’ll also ask if you forgot anything, and will add it to the order there and then – a really nice touch. Of all the services this one feels the most reliable and hands on.

Price: This level of service comes with the heftiest price in town. There’s a $4.99 picking fee whether you go with drive and load or delivery. Add $9.99 if you want the groceries then delivered to your home. Delivery is through a third party service called Shipt, they’ll notify you by text message when they’re arriving at the store to collect your order. Items are priced the same as in store.

Walmart - free gift bag
Walmart – free gift bag from a Walmart drive up order

Walmart

Who and how: I’ve left this one to last, as I know many people have fundamental issues with the retail behemoth; if you’re one of them, hey at least you read this far. For the rest of us more pragmatic types, Walmart demonstrably offers access to some of the most cost effective staples on the market. Walmart now offers both drive up and delivery in most areas.

Ordering:. Walmart offer both a phone app (no tablet version) and a website. Both are very solid and make shopping a breeze. Walmart’s website is probably the strongest out of all the services mentioned here, which is to be expected given their resources. Like Harmons if you order early enough in the day, you can typically get same day delivery or a drive up time slot. I find that you’ll need to get your order in before noon for same day turnaround.

Execution: There’s zero feedback during the picking process. If an item is out of stock, Walmart will try to make a best effort to replace the item; and I’ve experienced bizarre replacements – limes for lemons? Typically the first warning of a replacement is an email when the order is ready. When using Walmart I find it easiest to simply check the “do no replace” option on more specific picks: sure, go ahead and choose a different brand of chickpeas, but don’t dare try and assume you know what’s going to sate my Cheeto fix if they’re out. For drive up orders you can also refuse a substitution in situ, but in practice it can sometimes be impractical.

If you use the delivery service, Walmart rely on the existing DoorDash network of drivers. In my experience the driver will simply arrive during your hour long window, with no heads up of their immediate arrival. Moreover, as they’re functioning merely as a delivery intermediary, whatever they’ve brought – you’re getting it.

Price: The most affordable solution by far. Drive and load is completely free. Delivery is $9.99 and although fulfilled by DoorDash, you don’t need an account with them. Items are priced the same as in store.


Which online grocery service is best?

Each of the above services have their own allures and each have drawbacks. Instacart can be great for getting access to more exotic stores and can be godsend in a rush – their two hour service really does work. The costs

If cost your key driver, look to Walmart, their pricing of everyday staples is unbeatable. Not having to lug them around the store and into your car is heaven too. The flipside is that the feedback and quality of the experience can be highly variable.

Lastly, if you’re dipping your toes into all of this for the first time, I’d recommend Harmons. Having a direct line to a personal shopper – who actually listens and responds in real time is huge. Instacart tout this too, but Harmons implemeatiojn is more reliable in my opinion. The downside is cost, amplified agin by the fact Harmons is not the cheapest grocery option to begin with. Another bonus point for the Harmons drive up service is they will provision beer, none of the other services have any alcohol option at all.

Is online grocery shopping for you?

If you like to caress each and every tomato, dazed in loving selection, none of this is for you. You’ll probably have choked on the notion and your coffee several times reading this story. You’re probably one of those angry Internet people I mentioned earlier on. Those incapable of giving themselves over to the random order of the universe need not apply. With all three services, you need to be able to adapt and embrace a modicum of possible chaos.

It’s almost guaranteed an item will be out of stock on any given order from any of these services. My approach is to shop with this in mind. If I’m buying a weeks worth of groceries I’ll add a few extra shelf stable/frozen items, that can be switched in. Again to be clear, if you’re the type that breaks down in a flood of tears over an incorrect fast food order, this isn’t for you.

Tipping

I’ve yet to really figure this out myself in truth. First and foremost none of the services that offer drive up expect tips, indeed they flatly reject the offer if made; these are store employees executing a task that’s part of the regular service. Home delivery can be more complex. Instacart build a tipping option directly into their app, Walmart and Harmons do not. For Instacart I usually find myself tipping $5 or so; sometimes even more if the experience was fraught with replacements and the shopper excelled. In this instance I consider tipping fair game, a single shopper has literally walked the store on your behalf and delivered to your door.

Walmart and Harmons make the issue more complex. Neither operate their own delivery service, instead relying on DoorDash and Shipt respectively. In these instances the delivery driver is literally moving itms from point A to B, the store itself has fulfilled the picking of your order via their own employees (the hard work). I’m sure a cash tip would be greatly appreciated by drivers in both cases, annoyingly that’s something I rarely carry these days, so feel I inevitably feel chintzy. Both services could definitely improve their messaging here.

Curiously in the past Smith’s also delivered directly to homes via a service known as Click List. Post delivery, drivers would send Venmo requests directly, which honestly just felt weird and tacky. I note Smith’s only now deliver solely via Instacart.

Anyone else?

There are a few more businesses in this space I’ve yet to try, I’ll update this post as I do. Postmates, Shipt, Maceys. Smiths via Instacart as mentioned. Let me know your own experiences in the comments below, plus any other services you might have tried locally!

Credits. Photo by Jenna Day on Unsplash.com.

Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you!  I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune.  I’ve worked extensively with other local publications from Utah Stories through to Salt Lake Magazine and Visit Salt Lake.

I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for more than a decade.   I’m largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand.  I ate all the pies.

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