Instacart adds new features aimed at opening more delivery windows

Instacart today is rolling out new ordering options aimed at unlocking more delivery windows amid a surge of demand for its online grocery service due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The company is introducing “fast & flexible” and “order ahead” options, which will shift lower-priority orders further out on the schedule. This, in turn, allows Instacart shoppers to instead focus on customers with more immediate needs while still guaranteeing a time slot for those in less of a rush.

The first new feature, “fast & flexible,” allows Instacart to control the delivery window assignment.

Instead of picking a time slot on a given day, customers are given a range of dates when their order could arrive. This works well for those who are now working from home and sheltering in place as recommended by their local governments. Instacart will then match the order with the first available delivery time, it says.

It’s savvy marketing on Instacart’s part to label this as a “fast” option, when it’s really about customers identifying themselves as someone who’s willing to wait.

In markets where there’s heavy demand, it’s more likely this feature will allow Instacart to push deliveries back for several days without angering customers because they’ve already opted-in to the extended window.

In tests of the feature when we spotted it earlier this week, there wasn’t a financial advantage for picking the new option either — it was the same price as the other time slots. That may not always be the case, though.

The second new option is an extended order-ahead feature that lets customers plan their order up to two weeks in advance, instead of just one, as before.

This will be useful for those who hunt for recipes and plan their meals, then place one large order timed with their payday. It’s also handy as a way to grab a guaranteed time slot in advance, then build your cart in the weeks that follow as you think of things you need to buy.

This feature is already live in some high-demand markets and will roll out across North America in the next few weeks.

The changes arrive at a time when online grocery demand is at record levels. According to Instacart, customer demand is up 300% year-over-year, and its shopper community has grown from 200,000 to 350,000 active shoppers. It’s also hiring in customer service to meeting the growing demand, it says.

The influx of new customers has also led to a number of difficulties with shopping online for groceries. Instacart and others have seen delays and customers have reported issues in finding a time slot. In some cases, customers have even resorted to trying to hack the system by “tip baiting” in order to get a shopper to grab their order first. This involves customers adding a large tip in advance — something the Instacart gig workers see before choosing to claim a batch — then adjusting it after the order is delivered to a smaller amount.

Instacart claims that, despite rampant complaints from shoppers, the practice isn’t common. In March, it says, customers either adjusted their tip upward or did not adjust their tip after delivery on 99.5% of its orders. It also reports a 30% increase in customer tips during this time.

Tip baiting is a cruel trick, to be sure, but so is the fact that Instacart’s default tip is so low that shoppers would feel they have to pick orders based on who’s promising to tip the best. That puts people who are struggling to afford online grocery at a disadvantage — and some of these people may be unable to go to stores because they’re in a high-risk category for coronavirus complications. With a built-in, standardized and acceptable tip, the playing field would even out.

A higher built-in tip was one demand from a group of protesting Instacart shoppers who were pushing for better protective equipment and better pay. But the organizing efforts, so far, have not seen all shoppers participate. Some in the shopping community don’t want to bypass the money they’re making, they said. Some can’t afford to strike. Others felt they’re performing a community service. Instacart claimed the strike had no impact, as it saw more than 250,000 applications for people who were looking to join the service as shoppers during the week and saw record sales over the strike period.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Instacart has introduced more than 15 new product and support features, including contactless deliveries (including for alcohol), and other features like in-app incident reporting for shoppers, ratings forgiveness for shoppers, automatic cancellation of out-of-stock orders, mobile checkout for shoppers, in-app customer issue review for shoppers and more.

The new features are live now with some markets still to come.

Updated 4/8/20, 2:10 PM ET with Instacart’s dispute about tip-baiting.