Eric Johnson

Recent Posts by Eric Johnson

I Trusted a Total Stranger to Buy My Groceries — New Apps Do the Shopping for You

Some people enjoy shopping. I am not one of those people.

The time it takes me to drive to the grocery store, figure out what I want, wait in line to buy it and drive home always feels like an unnecessary waste of time. I could be using that hour for far more rewarding activities, such as watching BattleBots clips on YouTube writing.

Imagine my elation, then, when I heard about Instacart, an iPhone app that promises cheap grocery delivery to your door.

The start-up is part of a bigger phenomenon of apps that get others to do mundane tasks for you, such as the more high-profile TaskRabbit.

In Instacart’s case, you browse through the app’s categories, pick what you want, and indicate if you want your groceries delivered within the next three hours (for $3.99) or in the next hour (for $9.99). Or, you can pay $99 a year for free, unlimited three-hour delivery.

This annual plan may sound a bit familiar to those with subscriptions to Amazon Prime, which charges $79 annually for free, two-day delivery of most items in the online retail giant’s warehouses.

Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta

And the similarities are not mere coincidence. Instacart’s CEO is Apoorva Mehta, formerly an Amazon supply-chain engineer.

But the two services aren’t the same. Amazon, of course, can offer items at very low prices, because it owns and operates huge distribution warehouses worldwide. Instacart, part of the current crop at Y Combinator, works around the need to have high inventory costs entirely.

If this reminds you of the Web 1.0 flameout — the much-hyped instant delivery service that was partially funded by Amazon, in fact — you would not be completely off base.

In Instacart’s case, orders sent through the app (which is invite-only for now, and available only in San Francisco, Mountain View and Palo Alto) are then assigned to a driver, who finds whatever you ordered at a nearby store and brings it to you.

There are competitors in the delivery area, such as Peapod mobile, which requires you to make an account before you can see what’s available; there is also MyGofer, which offers delivery from local Kmart stores.

Instacart’s take is for users to open up a Pinterest-like grid of popular items (including Oreos and beer). When you tap on the picture of an item and say how many you want to add to your cart, you’re then taken back to the grid to buy more stuff.

There is also browsing by departments such as “Beverages” and “Deli,” which open into yet another grid of the most popular items.

After looking through all the departments and searching for things I couldn’t find easily, I assembled a full shopping list: More than 15 items, including orange juice, soup, bananas, soda and, of course, beer (but no Oreos).

Instacart offers free three-hour delivery with app users’ first order. My stuff was delivered about two hours after I ordered.

Well, most of the order was. That’s another issue with such services right now. Since Instacart doesn’t have a formal relationship with any stores, the drivers are left to their own wits to find what they can, and Instacart refunds users for the price of whatever they can’t find. This underlines the disadvantages of blindly sending someone else off with your shopping list, and no way to contact them.

Prices are also higher. Besides an invisible convenience fee on top of what Safeway — where my driver shopped — charged, all together my groceries were $20 more than if I had shopped myself.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik