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What It’s Like To Deliver Groceries For Instacart During An Outbreak05:37
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Instacart shopper Shamar Martin wheels two carts through an aisle at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Dedham, fulfilling three orders simultaneously. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Instacart shopper Shamar Martin wheels two carts through an aisle at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Dedham, fulfilling three orders simultaneously. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Twenty-six bottles of hand sanitizer. A hundred cases of water. Six 30-packs of toilet paper. These are just a few of orders that Theresa Woodford has received from Instacart customers during the past few weeks.

And although these requests are about as likely to be fulfilled as Woodford snapping her fingers to manifest a cure for the coronavirus, she booked the orders because ... what choice has she got?

As Massachusetts deals with the surge in coronavirus cases, millions of residents continue to hunker down at home. But that leaves gig workers like Woodford, who make money buying and delivering other people's groceries, in a difficult spot.

"They think we work for the store," said Woodford, who's been a "shopper" for Instacart for about a year. "They get mad at you because they don't understand that you have no control."

Nevertheless, grocery shopping is one job that continues to grow in importance. During a time when many businesses are shut down, companies like Instacart, Amazon (which owns Whole Foods) and Shipt are seeing an unprecedented surge in grocery orders. As of mid-April, Instacart says order volume is up more than 400% compared to a year ago.

Instacart shopper Shamar Martin picks out paper products for customers at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Dedham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Instacart shopper Shamar Martin picks out paper products for customers at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Dedham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"The demand is extremely high," said Shamar Martin, a 22-year-old who started doing Instacart in late March to supplement income from his regular job in event sales. "If you are willing to work a lot of hours ... you can make beaucoup money."

By squeezing in early morning and evening shopping runs, and working most of the weekend, Martin said he made more than $2,000 before taxes during his first week on the platform.

Still, Martin added, that earning opportunity comes with a tradeoff.

"I'm getting paid to do something, but I also am putting myself, and who I live with at my house, at risk," he said.

'It Wears On Your Psyche'

Outside Shaw’s Supermarket in Franklin, Woodford sprays down a cart with Lysol disinfectant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Outside Shaw’s Supermarket in Franklin, Woodford sprays down a cart with Lysol disinfectant. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Stay home and don’t go to the grocery store unless you have to. That’s been the guidance from health officials in recent days. But what if your job requires you to spend hours each day going in and out of various grocery stores?

Woodford, who lives in Dudley, said she’s been doing Instacart for about a year, working 30 to 50 hours per week.

Right now, a typical day — if you can call it that — begins by gathering up her "bag of tricks." In addition to bottles of water and snacks for the road, that now includes a personal stockpile of protective gear: a box of disposable gloves, an N100 mask, hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and a can of Lysol disinfectant spray.

Woodford's "bag of tricks," which includes her personal stockpile of disinfectants. (Theresa Woodford)
Woodford's "bag of tricks," which includes her personal stockpile of disinfectants. (Theresa Woodford)

Although Instacart recently started offering sick pay to workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19, Woodford is not taking any chances. Before entering any store to shop for an order, she dons her mask and gloves and douses her shopping cart in a cloud of Lysol.

In previous weeks, stories about grocery store workers who have become sick, or even died, from COVID-19 have fed a growing sense of anxiety around the work, Woodford said.

"That's scary to us because we're in the grocery stores  — multiple grocery stores — six, seven, eight, nine, ten times a day," Woodford said. "Have we been exposed to those employees? And are we now putting ourselves and our customers at risk?"

"It wears on your psyche," said Woodford, who is 55. "I'm a great-grandmother. The fact that I could be putting my family at risk by doing this, it freaks me out."

Woodford packs up the order she is fulfilling into her car in the parking lot of the Shaw’s Supermarket in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Woodford packs up the order she is fulfilling into her car in the parking lot of the Shaw’s Supermarket in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

That risk something Martin has to manage as well. He lives with a friend's family in Hyde Park, in a household with older residents and an infant.

"When I come in, I have to take off outside clothes, wash my hands," he said. "I'm not allowed to engage with the baby at all until the virus thing is over."

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'No Toilet Paper. No Paper Towels. No Napkins.'

Martin has been waking up around 5:30 in the morning in order to make it to BJ's Wholesale Club around 6 a.m., which is when the store starts letting in Instacart shoppers.

At an hour when most people are still asleep or barely awake, Martin is laser focused on getting in and out of the store as quickly as possible. That's because Instacart shoppers get paid on commission (based on the order size, the type of items and the distance the shopper has to drive) plus tips.

To make his trip more efficient, he has not only memorized the layout of the store, but also, on a recent morning, he shopped two different orders at once, which he accomplished by pushing two large carts through the store at the same time.

Martin gets a message from a customer saying they wish to cancel their order. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Martin gets a message from a customer saying they wish to cancel their order. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But during a time when strained supply chains and panic buying have made certain goods especially hard for stores to keep in stock, many orders take longer to shop than they used to, Woodford said.

Need flour? Sorry, that's gone.

A gallon of milk? Gone.

And paper goods? Please.

"No toilet paper, no paper towels, no napkins," observed Woodford on a recent trip to Market 32, a grocery store in Sutton.

When this happens, an Instacart shopper has to begin a sort of negotiation with the customer via text message:

They don’t have organic ... is regular okay?

Spaghetti is gone ... how about elbow macaroni?

Woodford wheels her cart past the empty shelves, which normally are stocked with paper products, at the Shaw’s Supermarket in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Woodford wheels her cart past the empty shelves, which normally are stocked with paper products, at the Shaw’s Supermarket in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Despite the extra time and effort it takes to fulfill orders, Woodford says her earnings have gone down in recent weeks. Before the coronavirus outbreak, she figures her hourly earnings, including tips, were around $27 to $30 per hour. Nowadays, it is closer to $18 per hour.

She blames much of the decline on the influx of new customers, many of whom are not accustomed to using — let alone tipping for — a grocery delivery.

On top of that, many Instacart shoppers have complained about "bait tipping." That's when a customer ordering groceries through the Instacart app initially offers a large tip, only to lower or eliminate the tip once they've received their delivery.

When WBUR asked Instacart about the practice of bait tipping, the company said that on 99.5% of orders in March, customers either adjusted their tip upward or did not adjust their tip after delivery. The company, which recently said that there are more than 350,000 active shoppers on the platform (compared to 200,000 just a month ago), declined to provide data on the average tips and earnings for its shoppers.

Woodford takes a look at what orders are available in the parking lot at the Stop & Shop in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Woodford takes a look at what orders are available in the parking lot at the Stop & Shop in Franklin. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On March 30, some Instacart drivers publicly protested, demanding that the company institute hazard pay of at least $5 per order, and raise the default tip amount on orders to 10% (as opposed to the current default tip of 5%). And while the company has done neither, Instacart says it has since made other changes.

Now, the tip defaults to whatever the customer last tipped on a previous order. And a button that allowed the customer to set the tip to "None" has been eliminated, so that a customer who wants to stiff a shopper must enter "$0" manually.

More Than The Money

On a Facebook group for Instacart shoppers in Massachusetts, members share the triumphs and tribulations they encounter on the job. Positive highlights include big tips, thank you notes from customers and envelopes of cash. Others shoppers have stories of customers tipping them with bottles of hand sanitizer, gloves and other protective equipment.

"Ninety percent of customers are nice," Woodford said.

But the other 10%? Let's just call them, the "difficult" ones: the ones who bait tip, who tip little or nothing to begin with, who blame the shoppers when a store either limits, or does not have, the items the customer wants.

"A couple of weeks ago I had a woman yell at me for not getting her a different kind of toilet paper," Woodford said. "I said to her, 'The only paper products available in the store right now are coffee filters. Would you have liked me to replace your toilet paper with those?'"

Martin leaves a delivery on the front steps of a home in Dedham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Martin leaves a delivery on the front steps of a home in Dedham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Despite the challenges, the health risks and the less-than-ideal pay, Woodford and Martin said they generally enjoy the work. Much of the satisfaction, they say, comes from a feeling that they are helping others through a tough time.

That's why, when they are scrolling through the app looking for potential orders, they often imagine who the customer might be.

"When you see orders with baby food, with diapers, if it's a good one, I'll take it, because I'd rather help out the parents," Martin said.

Woodford agrees. Similarly, she says she's more likely to take an order when she sees items like adult diapers.

"If I know it's an elderly person, I'm more apt to take a low-paying offer because I know they need their stuff," she said.

Yes, the work is stressful. But stressful enough to stay home? Not yet.

"There's too many people that need us," she said.

Woodford, scanning produce into the Instacart app as she shops for an order. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Woodford, scanning produce into the Instacart app as she shops for an order. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This segment aired on April 22, 2020.

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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