Instacart shoppers are camping out in parking lots to compete for orders

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Instacart shoppers are camping out in parking lots to compete for orders
Some Instacart shopper say they wait in grocery parking lots for orders.Denver Post Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon
  • Instacart shoppers said that they are waiting around for hours in parking lots just to claim orders.
  • It's one of the changes over the last few years that shoppers say have made the job harder.
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Sitting in a snowy, below-freezing Costco parking lot in Utah this February, Caroline, an Instacart shopper, had plenty of time to reflect on better days.

Caroline started working for Instacart in 2020. Back then, she could see which orders were available from the comfort of her home, and shopping a few big orders at Costco could net her $200 in pay and tips on a typical Sunday. Insider is using a pseudonym for Caroline, who did not want her real name used in this article for fear of professional retaliation.

Today, Caroline told Insider, a good Sunday means shopping six or seven orders and only getting $130. And she said that she has to log on from store parking lots to claim decent orders. This can mean spending hours in her car with the heater on, or, in the summer months, with the air conditioner on. Previously, she could do that before leaving home

All that has made the job less attractive. "Now, you're not really free anymore," she said. "You're locked in."

Insider spoke with five Instacart shoppers across the country about their recent experiences picking and delivering orders on the app. They declined to be identified in this piece for fear of professional repercussions, but their identities are known to Insider.

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All five said that recent changes to the app, plus declining demand for grocery-delivery services relative to highs early in the pandemic, have diminished their ability to make money by shopping for Instacart.

Instacart hired hundreds of thousands of new workers in 2020 to handle the pandemic-spurred increase in demand for delivery services. At least 600,000 contractors work for Instacart today, according to Business of Apps. And competition among shoppers for orders has increased.

Complaints from Instacart shoppers about the restrictions of the job conflict with the pitch that Instacart and many other delivery services make to potential contractors: By delivering for these apps, you can make money on your own time without the rigid hours of a typical job.

"Overwhelmingly, shoppers say they choose to earn income through the Instacart platform because of the freedom and independence they get with a flexible schedule," Instacart told Insider. The company said a majority of its contractors work on the app for less than 10 hours a week.

Heat maps and more workers make good earnings harder to snag on Instacart

An Instacart shopper in Indiana who likened his work to "part scavenger hunt, part video game," said he'd recently "soured" on the job.

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While he used to be able to wake up and check for orders while he was still at home, now Instacart has started pushing drivers to be closer to the store before accepting orders. Now, he said he has to sit in the Kroger parking lot just to claim an order.

Instacart confirmed to Insider that a driver's proximity determines when they see orders. "If a shopper chooses to wait for batches at home, they are welcome to do so; but they may be limiting themselves to available batches at nearby locations," the company said.

Some shoppers told Insider they increasingly pay attention to Instacart's "heat map." This color-coded system shows how busy stores are and, by extension, how likely a worker is to get an order that they can shop there. Stores marked in red are the busiest, followed by orange, then yellow. Instacart starting adding features showing demand at different stores in 2021.

The heat map leads to many workers sitting in parking lots or other locations near stores, three of them told Insider. Sitting in parking lots is frustrating to shoppers — and to at least some retailers. Some Costco stores are telling shoppers to remain elsewhere while they wait for an order to claim, Insider reported on Thursday.

Instacart shoppers are camping out in parking lots to compete for orders
A sample screenshot shows the Instacart heat map that shoppers see on the app.Insider source

Bundling orders helps Instacart, but shoppers say that they're a burden

Batch orders — when Instacart combines multiple shoppers' orders — are another source of frustration for workers.

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One tutorial sent by email and available on Instacart's shopper app notes that shoppers are "more likely to get batches if you move to these stores."

Another tutorial, sent to an Instacart worker last July, shows the location of a hypothetical store with a radius around it emphasized. "You'll see batches before shoppers outside the highlighted area," the email says. These tutorials were shared with Insider and Instacart confirmed these policies.

Instacart is also bundling orders more often than it used to, according to the workers. Instacart often puts multiple orders from the same or nearby stores together and sends them to its contractors as one task.

One Instacart worker based in Maryland told Insider that they stopped delivering for the app late last year in part because the batching meant they had to do more work for the same or less pay. The worker said she got an offer from Instacart that would have netted her just over $18 — if she shopped and delivered three orders at once, known among shoppers as a "triple."

"They'd try to give me smaller, shitty batches," the worker said.

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Triples have become the majority of batches available to Caroline, the Utah worker, though she said they were uncommon when she started working for Instacart in 2020. "A triple was pretty rare back then, and they were higher-paying," she told Insider. "Now, it's the norm," often with little or no tip, she added.

"Multi-order batches have been a part of our earnings structure for many years and represent only a small number of full-service batches," Instacart told Insider. "This maximized the time shoppers are earning and waiting on their next batch."

Instacart shoppers are camping out in parking lots to compete for orders
A sample screenshot that Instacart sent to shoppers shows that shoppers closer to a store see orders at that store before other shoppers who are farther away.Insider Source

Gig apps use ratings, maps, and other features to "gamify" the experience of being a delivery driver and encourage drivers to behave in ways that are beneficial to the services, including by sitting in parking lots and waiting for orders.

But in Instacart's case, hanging out near a store doesn't always work out. "I would sit in those areas for the length of time they're hot," Jim, who delivers for Instacart and other delivery apps in Illinois, said. "I never saw anything come in."

One day, Jim decided that going out to pick up orders for Instacart didn't make sense. "I got so tired of sitting in those parking lots, I stayed at home," he said. When that happens, Jim said, he has alternatives: DoorDash, Grubhub, and other apps that offer more flexibility.

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Do you shop for Instacart or have a story to share? Reach out to Alex Bitter at abitter@insider.com or via the encrypted messaging app Signal at (808) 854-4501.

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