Grocery shopping with the tap of an app


Instacart charges a $3.99 to deliver orders worth $35 or more within as little as two hours. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

The world hath no innovator like a technologist who hates running errands.

The growing arsenal of smartphone applications that replace the need to complete life’s simple tasks — drive, wash clothes, pick up lunch — now includes a service for those who can’t be bothered to go grocery shopping.

Instacart brings items from store shelves to your front door in as little as an hour. The on-demand delivery service launches Tuesday in the District and Northern Virginia, said Aditya Shah, the company’s head of expansion.

Customers select items on the company’s mobile app or Web site, then choose a preferred delivery time. An Instacart shopper shows up as scheduled with the milk, eggs and bread in hand. Payment for the groceries, including a delivery fee, is made online.

Instacart is essentially a carbon copy of similar services that have cropped up in the District recently. Washio debuted last month with an app to pick up, wash and drop off your laundry. The month before that, Postmates came to the D.C. market with a promise to deliver anything to your home or office in under an hour.

All of these upstarts see the same market opportunity in Washington: A ballooning population of young professionals who work long hours, collect sizeable paychecks and don’t own cars. That trifecta makes them more willing to spring for the convenience of someone else running their errands.

“Ultimately it comes down to the value that they get out of it,” Shah said. “If you’re able to save one to two hours of your own time and have someone deliver groceries to you at a price that’s reasonable, that’s a huge value add to you.”

Instacart charges a $3.99 fee to deliver orders worth $35 or more within as little as two hours. Customers who want an order worth $15 or less delivered in just an hour pay a premium of $14.99. Orders must be at least $10.

The app will only offer deliveries from Harris Teeter at the time of its launch with plans to add additional stores every few weeks, Shah said. To help promote the app, the company will waive the fee for a customer’s first delivery.

For some, grocery shopping can be a surprisingly personal endeavor. Consumers like to see or handle items, particularly produce and other perishables, before putting them in the shopping cart.

Shah said Instacart shoppers are trained to be savvy scrutinizers, receiving lessons on how to pick a fresh avocado and pull milk with the latest expiration date. Shoppers are also trained to spot fake IDs when delivering orders containing alochol.

What’s more, Instacart uses software that makes “hundreds of calculations a second” to determine the right time to dispatch a shopper, based on weather, traffic, sporting events and other factors, so that the groceries are still fresh when they arrive at the door.

“It’s not different from you picking up the groceries and going back to your home,” Shah said.

Instacart started in San Francisco a year and a half ago, Shah said. The company then expanded into Chicago and Boston after raising $8.5 million from Sequoia Capital.

Capital Business is The Post’s weekly publication focusing on the region’s business community.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.

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