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Instacart is a nightmare right now. Here's how to get your order

Samantha Christmann

With the country told to stay home and curb the spread of coronavirus, a record number of shoppers are turning to Instacart to shop their groceries for them. The shopping app is seeing the highest demand of its eight-year history, for both pickup and delivery, the company said.

As a result, groceries that used to show up on your doorstep an hour after you ordered them are now being delayed by as many as five days – when you can get through at all. That makes quick trips out for things like bread and milk more enticing, and makes going without more likely.

So how can you get through?

First things first: Remember that Instacart is not the only game in town. Not by a long shot.

There are three other major shopping apps, including Rosie (used by Dash's Market, which was the first to bring app grocery delivery to the Buffalo Niagara market), Shipt (which delivers for Target) and GoPuff, which is brand-new to Buffalo Niagara. Like Instacart, products cost more through the app than they would in the store.

There are a slew of merchants that have launched impromptu delivery and pickup services since the coronavirus outbreak. And places such as DiMino's Tops in Lewiston have delivered for years.

You can also place orders for pickup or delivery with vendors at the Broadway Market, at grocery wholesalers such as Guercio & Sons on Grant Street, at farms and dairies such as Hoover's Dairy in Sanborn, at Walmart, Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale Club and through several small stores and specialty food merchants throughout Western New York.

[Related: How local markets are helping local producers, customers endure the Covid-19 pandemic]

When in doubt, just start calling nearby mom-and-pop retailers and food suppliers. They are making special arrangements more often than not these days.

If you want to stick with Instacart, here are some tips from the company, its workers, customers and me.

Consider giving up your slot for someone who needs it more. If you're young and healthy and are quarantined at home alone, consider doing your own shopping instead of ordering through Instacart. That way, people with mobility issues or who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 will have a better chance to access the service they truly need. Think of it as giving up your seat on the bus.

Check early, check often. I tried to put an order in last Friday but there were no delivery times available. Instacart says to check for new delivery windows often, and an Instacart worker told me the best time to try is early in the day. So I woke up at 6 a.m., opened the app and there it was: an open window for the following Thursday. Quite a wait, and nothing like the old days, but I jumped on it.

My friend Erin uses the same method and somehow lucked out on same-day delivery four times in two weeks. She had the best luck from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., she said. (She places small orders, though, which might be why they can squeeze her in at the last minute).

Combine orders. My sister, dad and I recently shared an order for delivery. My dad and I gave my sister our lists and she put them into the app (we could've also done this digitally by creating a 'group cart,' but more on that later). Everything was delivered to my sister's house, and she split everything up and delivered it to us.

If you do this, you might want to split the cost of an Instacart membership. You'll pay $99 for the year (or $9.99 per month) for an Instacart Express membership, which will give you free deliveries over $35 and no added peak pricing. Otherwise, you'll pay delivery charges for each order, ranging from $3.99 to $7.99.

Stay by the phone. Instacart shoppers are taught that it's better to pick a replacement for a customer than to send nothing if an item is out of stock. If you want to be sure you'll like what they pick, stay glued to your phone. They'll text to let you know when they've started shopping your order, then ask if you have preferences about what they should buy in place of items that are not available. If you don't respond, they'll use their best judgement to swap things out or possibly just refund your money.

Choose replacements ahead of time. Instead of waiting for your shopper to ask you about substituting out-of-stock items, have your preferred placements ready for them. You can select second choices for every item on your list, or specify that you don't want a replacement if the store doesn't have the specific item you requested.

Choose no-contact delivery. When checking out in the app, click "Leave at my door delivery." The shopper will leave your purchases outside your door and contact you to let you know they're there.

Consider curbside pickup. Wegmans workers have started helping in-store Instacart shoppers fill curbside pickup orders to speed up the process. It began at the McKinley Parkway store in Hamburg last week, and more locations will be added.

Don't wait until the last minute. Do an inventory of what you have and keep a list of what's low so you can order ahead. That way, if you have to wait, at least you won't run out.

Create a "group cart." This allows everyone in your household to add or edit your shopping list from wherever they are. It also allows you to walk someone else through an order, or send groceries to a loved one. You can have groceries shipped from your account to anyone, anywhere that Instacart delivers. Select "Create a group cart" under "My Carts."

A note on pricing. Items cost about 15% more in the app than they do in stores, and there is an added service fee of 5% (or a minimum of $2). Tip is additional, but shouldn't be considered optional.

How to have groceries delivered without a smartphone or the internet

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