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How to shop on Instacart without being a jerk

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Instacart’s app can feel like magic. But 600,000 contractors make the magic happen.

Order your groceries from Instacart’s app, and one of those workers roams the aisles at the local Kroger for your items, waits in line to pay and delivers to your door.

Instacart went public this week, putting a spotlight on the company and the contractors it calls “shoppers.”

I asked Instacart workers two basic questions: What do they wish Instacart customers or potential ones knew about their jobs? And how can customers get good service and be considerate?

Much of this advice could also apply if you use Uber Eats, Lyft, DoorDash or similar apps.

There are few established social or legal norms for the workers behind app-based convenience services. It’s up to us, perhaps unfairly, to figure out details such as how much to tip and why some orders arrive in 30 minutes and others in hours.

Here’s what Instacart workers want you to know about their jobs, and how to be a satisfied and kind customer:

A significant portion of workers’ pay comes from tips

Lala Muhammad, who has worked for Instacart in the Atlanta area since 2017, said her pay last week for Instacart work was $330 before taxes.

She said about $76 of that was from Instacart, and $253, or more than three-quarters of her pay, was from customer tips.

Three other workers said their pay was roughly a 50-50 split between Instacart and tips.

Instacart might pay as little as $4 to $10 for shopping and delivering a “batch,” or between one and three customer orders that the company bundles together.

Muhammad said when she has ordered her own groceries from Instacart, she typically tipped 20 percent of the grocery order. Another worker suggested at least 10 percent, or 15 to 20 percent if the order is from a warehouse club.

A third person said a $5 tip is fair on a relatively simple order.

Several Instacart workers said they believe orders from customers who tip generously tend to be paired with an order from someone who didn’t tip.

In other words, if you’re a good tipper, you’re essentially subsidizing the orders of non-tippers.

Is it better to tip in the app or in cash at the door?

In the app or both, according to some Instacart workers.

One wrinkle of Instacart is that you’re asked to tip when you place an order. You don’t know whether the Instacart shopper will do an amazing job or a terrible one. (On Reddit, even Instacart workers complain about their counterparts who do a poor job.)

Karyn Johnson-Dorsey, an Instacart worker outside of Los Angeles, understands the financial hardship and frustration at being asked to tip for seemingly everything and even for poor service.

She suggested that Instacart customers can increase the tip in the Instacart app after delivery if you’re happy. Or tip more in cash at the door.

Tipping well when you order also makes it more likely your shopping will be handled quickly.

The tip you enter when you order is among the few pieces of information that workers have to decide whether to accept each shopping task.

Instacart workers said they’re more likely to say yes quickly to orders with higher tips.

Instacart said its app prompts customers to consider increasing their tip if they’ve rated the Instacart worker highly, or to leave a tip if they initially skipped one.

The company also said workers have complete discretion to choose or reject potential orders.

All the fees you pay don’t go to the Instacart worker

What you pay Instacart as a customer is largely divorced from what Instacart pays workers.

Instacart prices are sometimes higher than what the grocery store charges. There are typically delivery and other fees, too, including if you order alcohol or heavy items such as cases of water.

Instacart workers are not paid those fees or for the markups on grocery store items.

It helps to be communicative with the Instacart worker

When you order in the Instacart app, customers are sometimes nudged to select a second choice if your item isn’t available when the worker does your shopping.

Multiple Instacart workers said it helps customers and them if people make those second choice selections in the app and respond quickly if they send chat messages from the store about acceptable substitutions.

Uncertainty about substitutions slows down your order.

Workers don’t know how their pay is determined

Before an Instacart shopper accepts orders, they see details such as the location of the grocery store, estimated pay including tip and total miles they need to drive.

On Reddit and elsewhere online, Instacart workers puzzle over how Instacart computer algorithms determine what each job pays or direct them to stores far away.

There’s also no certainty about how much work they’ll get.

I spoke to Johnson-Dorsey at about 4 p.m. in California. She’d had one order since she logged into the Instacart app at 11 a.m. She was waiting near several grocery stores for more.

Instacart workers aren’t paid for the time they’re waiting for orders.

The job can be wonderful. It can also be dangerous.

Johnson-Dorsey takes pride in shopping for customers’ groceries with the care she takes shopping for herself.

Muhammad spoke fondly about an Instacart customer with whom she developed a friendship over several years. They would sit and talk about their families.

And some workers for Instacart and other apps say they value the flexibility to work only when they want.

“The whole being your own boss thing — even if you’re at the whim of an algorithm — is very freeing,” said Orlando Bispo, who works for Uber Eats in New York but has worked for other app companies before.

Johnson-Dorsey said 90 percent of interactions with Instacart customers are positive. But she has a protocol to protect herself from uncommon risks.

When she makes deliveries to homes, she keeps her car door open, steps back from the doorstep and wears headphones in case she needs to escape or call for help.

Recently, Johnson-Dorsey said, an Instacart customer who was unhappy about being asked for identification for an order that included alcohol walked away from his doorstep and returned holding a handgun.

Instacart said it investigates reported violations of its guidelines and would block a customer for acts or threats of violence. The company didn’t comment about Johnson-Dorsey’s experience.

There’s a limit to what customers can do for workers

Bispo said stronger legal protections are needed to ensure workers are paid and treated fairly, and advocated for a guaranteed minimum wage for people in New York working for restaurant delivery apps.

A similar provision in California, Proposition 22, applies to Instacart. Two Instacart workers in the state said it has mostly been positive for them.

“There’s nothing that the consumer can really do,” Bispo said. “We need for the government to step in and govern.”

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