Online grocery shopping is a key player in the game of household efficiency. As much as I love wandering the aisles of a grocery store, taste-testing new products and picking out the perfect peach, there is often no time for this. Lugging bags from store to car to kitchen is a drag, as is waiting in line when the only time you can make it to the store is when everyone else can, too.
Once considered a luxury, online grocery shopping has become more common and affordable. A recent Nielsen study reveals that about a quarter of Americans buy some of their groceries online, and up to 70 percent will follow in the next six years. These days, grocery delivery services provide more than food at your doorstep. They include menu-planning tools, meal kits, farmers market quality, and same-day delivery. Sounds enticing, but with so many different fees to navigate and stores to choose from, where to begin?
Here’s what to look for in an online grocer:
Some collect delivery fees. Others charge a subscription fee for unlimited deliveries. Establish how often you will be using the service to determine whether the subscription model is cost-effective. Look for member coupons and free trials.
Same-day delivery is appealing if you are too busy to plan ahead. Short delivery windows or unattended deliveries are ideal for people on the move, while longer delivery windows can save money.
Most sites offer automatic reordering. Some enable you to buy ingredients straight from recipes or easily add items to your order after checkout. If you are always on the go, you’ll want a user-friendly mobile app.
Would you prefer to shop at one store, or amass items from many stores into one delivery? Decide if you are interested in extras such as meal kits, chopped vegetables, and organic, gluten-free, all-natural or local foods before you pick a service.
Here are some things I have learned and mistakes I’ve made as I experimented with different online grocers:
Check unit quantities. I once inadvertently ordered five pounds of sweet potatoes instead of five individual ones.
Contact customer service if your blueberries spilled. Most companies will immediately credit or redeliver a missing or damaged item.
Book a delivery slot ahead of time during holidays and busy periods such as the day before the Super Bowl or before an impending snowstorm. Tuesday and Wednesday are often the cheapest and most available delivery days.
Search online for first-time-customer coupons and free trials, as not all are advertised.
Below are several online grocery shopping options. I focused on services that have been in business for a while and have a successful track record with customers, serve the Washington area, and in most cases are available nationwide and deliver true grocery items (including fresh produce) from local stores or warehouses.
•Product: Anything you’d find at a Giant or Stop & Shop store.
•Cost: Minimum order of $60. Delivery fees range from $6.95 to 9.95 depending on order size or unlimited delivery subscriptions. Look for a new-customer discount and expect prices to be comparable to those in store.
•Pros: Helpful customer service, doubled manufacturer coupons, and organic, gluten-free, vegan and non-GMO filters.
•Cons: No same-day delivery. If choosing unattended delivery, you are charged $4 for the insulated delivery bags.
•Product: Purchases directly from your neighborhood Safeway.
•Cost: A $9.95 delivery fee on orders over $150 and a $12.95 delivery fee on orders under, with occasional fuel charges. Look for a new-customer discount and expect prices to compare with those in store.
•Pros: A helpful customer service hotline, easy recipe ordering and ease of adding items after checkout. One-, two- and four-hour delivery windows.
•Cons: Same-day service is available only through Instacart.
•Product: Offers Whole Foods brands at cheaper prices, meal kits, and many items available on Amazon.com.
•Cost: Amazon Prime members are given a free trial and then charged $14.99 a month for unlimited deliveries with a minimum order of $40.
•Pros: Same-day delivery is available. Amazon makes it easy to order ingredients from their recipes and add items after checkout, offers plenty of coupons, and provides unattended delivery. Prices are generally cheaper than on many of the other sites, the app is user-friendly, and orders may be placed through Alexa.
•Cons: Available only to Amazon Prime members.
(Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
•Product: Sources from many stores and compiles into one delivery. Store options include Whole Foods, Costco, drug stores and pet supply stores.
•Cost: Pay a $149 yearly subscription fee for free delivery on unlimited orders over $35 or pay per delivery; fees depend on timing. There is a 5 percent service fee per order (7.5 percent in New York City). Some stores match in-store pricing while others mark up items, so read the fine print. Begin with the free two-week trial.
•Pros: Groceries can be delivered within an hour, making Instacart the fastest option. The personal shoppers interact with you via text if they have questions and alert you when the food is on its way, making the experience customer-friendly. The app is user-friendly.
•Cons: Overall, costs tend to be higher.
•Product: Specializes in gourmet and natural foods with a focus on organic, gluten-free and kosher items. Claims to provide high-quality meats and seafood, freshly baked goods and meal kits and to source from local farms and dairies.
•Cost: Monthly fee structure for free deliveries, or a delivery fee of $7.99 per order in the Washington, D.C., area.
•Pros: Offers lots of coupons, unattended delivery, and extras such as homemade stock and chopped vegetables.
•Cons: No same-day delivery or easy interface to order ingredients from recipes, and delivery is limited to the East Coast.
•Product: Delivers healthy food and natural products at wholesale prices, about 25 to 50 percent off retail. Offers curated brands that it says meet the highest standards in the natural product category, including meat, fish, packaged foods and supplements, and pet, baby and children’s supplies.
•Cost: Annual fee of $59.95 with free delivery on orders over $49. For each paid membership, Thrive offers one to someone in need. Start with a free trial.
•Pros: Every product is tagged with descriptors such as nut-free, dairy-free, vegan, non-GMO, carbon-neutral and other labels that matter to their customers.
•Cons: No fresh produce. Very focused on health and natural products, so if you’d prefer mainstream groceries, perhaps look elsewhere.
•Product: Sources from many stores and compiles into one or a few deliveries. Retail options include Whole Foods, Costco, Giant, Staples, Walgreens and many home stores.
•Cost: Each store has a per- store minimum of $25 to $35 for free delivery. Prices generally compare with those in store.
•Pros: Orders can be placed via Google Assistant.
•Cons: Not everything comes in one delivery, and deliveries range from same-day to three-day. If you order from many stores, you may end up paying multiple delivery fees if you do not meet minimums. Interface lacks extras such as recipes.
An earlier version of this article failed to mention that Instacart charges a 5 percent service fee (7.5 percent in New York City) per order. This version has been corrected.
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