Instacart is a spleen and it needs to be a kidney

The spleen does things in the body, real things. It filters poisons and biologists think it once did much more. But, if your spleen goes sideways you can take it out and not change your lifestyle much. It does stuff, but not enough to make it indispensable. Lose your kidneys and your life is going to start sucking real fast.

You wouldn’t die with just one kidney, but you’d certainly notice. And that’s the point.

This is where Instacart is at. It’s a spleen and it needs to become a kidney.

When Amazon announced the nearly $14 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, hot takes abounded. Many suggested that Instacart would be the real loser in this deal. But we wrote back then that the deal actually poses a great (albeit challenging) opportunity for Instacart’s business.

But the key to that opportunity lies in user experience, and this is where Instacart has the opportunity to take everything it’s learned so far and shine.

The grocery business is hard. It’s even more difficult when you try to add some layer of tech/convenience on top and turn a traditionally offline experience into a digital one.

In a store, grocery shopping can become a truly visceral experience. The scent of fresh baked bread wafts in the air near the bakery. You hear the thump of a thumb on a cantaloupe, feel the fresh, ripe tomatoes in your own hands. Watch your deli meat sliced right before your eyes. To some, this is worth the effort of shlepping to the grocery store when you think about the fact that all this food will eventually be in your mouth.

Moving the experience over to the internet is, by comparison, so much more impersonal. It becomes about browsing a database, clicking, and waiting with blind faith that the person doing your shopping cares as much as you do.

Consider this Twitter user who felt she had to draw out pictures of produce for her own husband to successfully complete a shopping trip.

There are two critical ways to improve the Instacart experience overall, but both can be boiled down to building a stronger connection to its network, including users and grocery partners. Instacart needs to know you, what’s important to you, while maintaining a real-time understanding of what’s going on at every grocery partner location on its platform.

But before we get into any of that, it’s important to know this…

Groceries are hard

While a traditional grocery store enjoys razor thin margins, Instacart has the benefit of up-charging you for that all-important convenience. Someone else is doing the shopping, and someone else is bringing those products to your home, and for that, you pay extra.

For Instacart, turning that extra money into an actual profit is all about efficiency. How quickly can the shopper fill the request and move on to another one? How quickly can the delivery person make it to your house and back to the store?

Quick rarely translates to quality.

Every practiced grocery shopper knows that the best produce is rarely sitting on the top of the heap. And beyond that common knowledge, cooks who go shopping know the difference between an avocado that is ready today vs. an avocado that will be ready for fajita night on Wednesday, and pick their produce accordingly. And then there’s brands. Individual shoppers are hyper aware of the brands they use, whether it’s their favorite yogurt or almond milk or cereal.

Instacart shoppers aren’t as concerned with these somewhat trivial matters as you would be if you were doing your own shopping. Their goal is to turn around this order and get started on the next.

Some grocery shoppers don’t care as much about quality as they do about getting their food quickly. Some shoppers are fiercely loyal to their brands, and will pay whatever it takes to go home with the right flavor of Chobani. And other shoppers would rather save a few bucks on Dannon’s Oikos greek yogurt.

Just like users need to know their own grocery shopping priorities, Instacart needs to know its users.

And then there are the 160+ grocery chains that Instacart partners with, some of whom have legacy inventory systems that are anything but compatible with this digital world.

It’s a tall order, but helping users understand the very best way to use Instacart could save the company (and their users) from a lot of headaches.

It’s up to you!

When Instacart first launched, the assumption was that users who want their groceries delivered don’t really want to be involved in the process. Turns out, that’s not really the case, and Instacart built out a way to communicate with your shopper as they go through the process.

But many folks, myself included, either didn’t notice that line of communication, or didn’t realize that utilizing it would be the solution to many of the potential issues that can arise from someone else doing their grocery shopping.

Long story short, the more work you put into placing your order, the better things will turn out.

The perception of online grocery shopping is that you pick your items, choose a delivery time, and call it a day. But the inventory turnover in a grocery store may be faster than any other retail industry, and the items you see on Instacart’s digital shelf may no longer be available in the real world.

This is where things get a bit gritty with Instacart. If you’re shopper can’t find what you’re looking for, they use their shopping app to see which product Instacart’s algorithm suggests instead.

Sometimes this doesn’t work out so well:

I tried to make a pot roast a few weeks ago, and instead of receiving my ordered onion dip powder (for flavor), I received taco seasoning. Not the same thing.

And not only the difference between red and white onions, but the difference between which customers care that their onions are either red and white, and which customers don’t really sweat the small stuff, and the full spectrum between customer A and customer B.


Within the app, there is the option to “Find Best Match”, “Pick Specific Replacement”, or “Don’t replace,” which certainly helps users who know that it’s there. However, folks who are new to Instacart and don’t know the headache of botched replacements may gloss over that feature, assuming that if the product is listed on the website, it must be available.

What’s more, these replacement options are even more difficult to find on the web. Once a user has built out their cart and checked out, they must click through in the order summary page to see all of their listed items, and go through each individually to designate which ones are replaceable, have a specific replacement, or irreplaceable.

Clarifying to users that the mobile app has this functionality, and that this feature will make the entire experience far more enjoyable, is something that Instacart should prioritize in its messaging across the platform. And, obviously, Instacart should make this feature more prominent on the web version of the service, as grocery shopping seems like one of those ‘at your desk’ or ‘on your couch’ online activities.

But, as an Instacart customer, you have to recognize that these features are there for you to use.

If the brand of yogurt you eat doesn’t matter to you, but you live and die by Kettle brand potato chips, you need to make sure to mark those chips as “Do Not Replace.” If you need your avocados or bananas to be edible upon arrival, you should leave a note for the shopper to buy them ripe.

Think of it this way: If you rush through placing your order, your Instacart shopper will likely rush through choosing your groceries.

Trust me, I know how temping it is to ignore notifications. Many of us are drowning in little bleeps and bloops from our phone all day long, and it’s easy to want to tap “No” when that initial prompt to allow notifications pops up on your phone. But, for the love of God, leave your notifications on for Instacart. That way, when your shopper has to replace something, you have the opportunity to veto the situation or communicate your preferred alternative.

It’s up to Instacart

As should be the case in the convenience economy, Instacart has its fair share of the work to do when it comes to a top-notch user experience. Which brings me back to the difficulty of the grocery industry.

There is no one, centralized system that helps grocery stores track their inventory. Each uses their own system, from papers on clipboards to spreadsheets to legacy software programs. Instacart takes this inventory information in whatever form the grocery store uses, making an already difficult situation of grocery store inventory that much more impossible.

It’s this disconnect between Instacart and grocery stores, no matter how hard they try, that leads to those dreaded replacements.

The entire process — from the store, to the Instacart shopper, to the user at home ordering food — would be made much more efficient with improved back-end software that hooks into inventory systems. Though we’re in the midst of the machine learning revolution, this is still a very difficult task.

Take, for instance, the platform that Drizly created for alcohol retail, which integrates with any POS that a liquor store might use to track inventory and help the retailer manage their back-end. That said, it took Drizly five years and $35 million in funding to get there.

Instacart has a whole mess of things on its plate, from signing on new grocery store partners, to recruiting and training shoppers, to continuously improving the user experience within the app.

But, as they say, don’t treat the symptoms. A real-time backend system for grocery stores would not only result in a better Instacart for users, but potentially a new revenue stream for the business. And who could do it better than Instacart?

Right now, Instacart already gives grocery store chains invaluable real-time data around what shoppers love most and what’s out of stock. But a deeper integration, where the two services are in constant communication, can only lead to a better experience for everyone involved.

Of course, that becomes more difficult if the Amazon/Whole Foods deal entices other big box retailers to consider Instacart (I’ve heard that Instacart is seeing increased interest, but cannot confirm). With Amazon taking over Whole Foods, the pace of the industry has now been sped up. Wal-Mart, for example, may be more likely to get in bed with Instacart, as the giant is already working on ways to deliver your groceries, whether or not you’re home. And that might even mean introducing non-food SKUs to Instacart, which would complicate inventory even more.

As of June, Whole Foods represented less than 10 percent of the revenue flowing through Instacart, and Instacart has plans to service 80 percent of markets by the end of 2018.

In other words, Instacart is a growth business, and the more people who hop on and use the service (along with an increase in grocery store partners), the more Instacart has to mature beyond the wonder of grocery shopping online to an excellent experience. And that means educating the user on how to get the most out of it (you get what you give!), and building out a system that solves the problems at their source.

After all, customers now have an alternative option. Amazon Fresh now has the credibility of Whole Foods to sweeten the deal, and the piping hot competition means Instacart better become a kidney or be forgotten after routine lifestyle surgery.