Instacart shopper
At 6:30 p.m. on a chilly August evening, Instacart shopper Rolando Chan had already spent six hours killing time on a bench outside Gus’s Community Market at Harrison and 17th. Photo by Yujie Zhou

At 6:30 p.m. on a chilly August evening, Instacart shopper Rolando Chan had already spent six hours killing time on a bench outside Gus’s Community Market at Harrison and 17th streets. Only one order worth taking had come in. Two months ago, it would have been normal for him to get eight massive orders in a 12-hour day, orders that bagged him around $50 apiece, between payment and tip.

Chan desperately scrolled the Instacart order page, but no new orders came. Nor did one appear on the phones of any of the other three shoppers around him. Unconcealed frustration filled the air. In time, some settled for what, they unanimously agreed, were unworthy orders. 

While Instacart continues to report an increase in orders and revenue in advance of its public stock offering, its San Francisco workers we spoke to aren’t experiencing that prosperity. The pandemic proved to be a boon for all 10 San Francisco Instacart workers Mission Local recently talked to, but nine of them said they’re now getting fewer orders. For them, the pandemic boom has gone bust.  

David Bishop, a partner at the grocery business intelligence agency Brick Meets Click, said their experience is consistent with his broader observations of the e-grocery industry. “Think about inflation. How easy is it for someone to spend less and avoid paying more than necessary?” Moreover, two years into the pandemic, people are less worried about being infected, which allows them to return to  in-person shopping.

Edison Yang, a five-year veteran of Instacart, said that, for many of his fellow shoppers, their “sitting time is longer than their working time.” Like Chan, Yang has idled in the bitter cold in front of a store. “Today is slow … it’s actually been slow for weeks. Many of the orders are for just a few things.” 

Yang used to make more than $300 a day, but now he earns only $200. He has taken up DoorDash to make up for the loss of income, but has no intention of dropping gig work entirely. “The economy is bad. Other industries are also suffering; I can only wait to ride it out,” he said.

Pablo Herrarte, 20, says he now has to “take whatever orders come up.” That includes those that pay just over $10 and require him to wait in a long line at a Safeway two miles away. 

With his average hourly earnings plummeting to $20 from $30, he has extended his hours. “Back then, it was good, I didn’t have to work this much,” said Herrarte, referring to Instacart’s pandemic boom. 

Now, he works 12 hours a day, rather than eight, with only half a day off every Sunday. In four and a half hours on a recent Friday, he had closed three orders at Safeway, with a total take-home pay of $64, and an order that netted him $37 at Rainbow Grocery, a store famous for its organic food. His hourly wage averaged $22.44. Minimum wage in San Francisco is $16.99. 

Instacart shopper Angel, 40, in Gus’s Community Market at Harrison and 17th on a recent Wednesday. Photo by Yujie Zhou.

Exceptions also exist. An Instacart shopper who was carefully sorting through sausage varieties in a freezer at Gus’s on a recent Wednesday said his order volume and tips had not changed much.

Andre Reynaldo, 33, was one of the lucky ones that day. After snapping up more than 180 items at Rainbow Grocery, including a pile of $5 juices, and dropping the delivery off at South San Francisco, he earned $170 for 75 minutes of labor. 

Visibly happy, he planned to end his day earlier than usual. That order, he said, had been an exception.

“Inflation is affecting all shoppers. Some days are really slow.” Last week, he worked three days and only made $700, or $233 a day, while he previously made $300 a day. Tips are also down, from 15 to 20 percent to as low as five percent, he said.

The change has not escaped the notice of grocery store owners. Since 1974, Keith Trimble’s family has owned The Village Market, a high-end grocery store in Oakland. He’s been partnering with Instacart for five years. “I looked at the previous week, and in comparison, the item count and the customer count were down,” said Trimble. But, while there were fewer overall Instacart orders, Trimble did notice that a number of the customers using it at his store were new to it.

“You have more affluent customers that probably could afford to absorb inflation, but it still impacts their spending. They have less consumer confidence when there’s more economic bad news, and they seek better value options,” said Jason Goldberg, the chief commerce strategy officer at the advertising giant Publicis. As consumers seek cheaper groceries, it makes sense to cut out “middlemen” like Instacart, he said. 

Both Goldberg and Bishop of Brick Meets Click felt that the decline in Instacart orders is likely to be more common at high-end grocery stores; places like Gus’s, Rainbow and The Village Market. 

At the Costco Wholesale on 10th Street, Roberto is an Instacart in-store shopper responsible for purchasing, but not delivering. “I guess Costco’s Instacart order drop is comparatively smaller, versus those high-end grocery stores,” he said.

Edenilson Zecena, 25, was trying to load the three orders he had taken from Roberto into his car. They would earn him $55. He said that, despite an overall sense of a decline, Costco’s Instacart orders seemed to be holding up. Jess, a Coctco employee, agreed. In fact, he had recently complained to his superiors that too many Instacart shoppers might affect customers’ shopping experience.

But the future may, indeed, be perilous for Instacart. “The inflation is not likely to last forever,” said Goldberg from Publicis, who still sees issues for Instacart. “It just doesn’t make sense for a grocery store to pay Instacart to deliver their groceries, when they can make more money delivering on their own,” Goldberg said. 

“As they lose those big retailers as customers, Instacart is having to move downmarket to smaller mom-and-pop grocery stores,” he said.

According to Bishop, as retailers like Target and Walmart build up their own delivery services, “more and more retailers are looking at Instacart as more of a long-term competitive threat than a long-term partner, which is kind of a change.” 

Whatever lies ahead for Instacart, it’s a tough time for the company’s cadre of shoppers. No matter how many times Chan scrolled through his phone, all that appeared were orders for a dozen bucks, and even those were miles away. That, in itself, was a sign of trouble. “Normally, they don’t show orders this far,” he said. 

If this situation persists, he will go back to his old job of painting rooms, where, despite the inconsistent work schedule, he could make $600 a day, or about the same as what he made in the boom days of Instacart. As a 40ish man with two children, he was clearly bothered by the day’s meager earnings. But for now, all he could do was give up.

His plan? “Go home. Start early tomorrow, 7 o’ clock.”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. Instacart faces more problems than just competition. Since the pandemic there has been a vicious cycle: hire way too many new shoppers, give them priority to orders, they mess up people’s orders, customers complain and leave the platform, and so on. As a shopper I have seen a big increase in complaints from customers and retailers regarding shoppers—everything from picking bad produce to treating employees badly. On top of this, Instacart has increased its already steep customer fees. One customer I had met me at the door to ask about this. Of course I mentioned that fee increases do not translate into shopper earnings increases. Why would customers pay more for a worse shopping experience? Furthermore, amid inflation, more customers are doing their own shopping it seems, at least in my area.

  2. IC should be ashamed of the way they treat their shoppers, and allow the customer to completely control shoppers pay. Extremely unfair company to work for. No batches or ones that aren’t worth walking out your door for. TERRIBLE!

  3. I would use INstacart exclusively if the shoppers didn’t pick such awful fruit and vegetables. I tip maximum and give lots of stars hoping to make things better for the shoppers. Unfortunately, I throw away a large quantity of fruits and vegetables. My orders are large, frequent and usually lots of $$$$.
    Expensive seafood etc. so often I either need to get a butcher shop or seafood refund. Gus’s is the WORST for seafood and butcher shop. It’s not worth ordering usually. When I go into the store myself I can select fresh items. I have empathy for the shoppers and think they are exploited as are most “gig” workers. Nevertheless, it would be nice if they would consistently make more good choices. I will continue to use INstacart because it is really convenient but only for certain items. Bi Rite sends much much better produce.

    1. Just a response to your comments… I have made several complaints to Instacart about the fruits and vegetables that shoppers have to choose from. Often, the selections aren’t great. If I see produce that is poor quality, I will inform the customer. However, many shoppers are willing to risk selecting poor quality items to maintain their tips. For each item refunded, that is less pay for the shopper. All around, the system is unfair!

  4. Instacart workers have also been hurt by “everybody getting in on the game.” Every store, it seems, has been offering their own pick up and/or delivery now when before the pandemic it wasn’t. Stores are using their own employees to pick orders from online placements and that hurts the Instacart driver in a couple of main ways: we don’t get to compete for a lot of good orders and the inventory is gone by the time we, as 3rd party shoppers, do see an order. The store shelves have already been stripped by the stores own online shoppers who are earning an hourly wage plus benefits we as Instacart shoppers never see. Plus, those store employees are not using their own vehicles to deliver goods in. Kroger, Walmart, etc. are quite literally working to put Instacart delivery people out of business.

  5. Like many SF residents, I tried Instacart during the lockdown. I’m glad the option was there but it’s a poor experience overall, and expensive.

    If there’s another lockdown I will use it. If I don’t have to, I won’t.

    Obviously I speak only for myself, but I’m middle class and my time is unfortunately not as valuable as the remaining Instacart customers. Instacart’s whole business plan requires there to be a lot of people who have more money than time available. That does sound like the Silicon Valley crowd … but how many are there nationally, not even to mention locally?

    1. all delivery service business models require indentured servitude for the delivery of products to the consumer. that’s why they they are vested in the future of robotic systems to deliver products.