Instacart Shopper: Dos and Don'ts

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After shopping over 1,200+ orders, I've come to the conclusion that there is not one strategy to keep you ahead in the Instacart food delivery game but a few strategies combined.

Instacart provides a good amount of freedom to make money on your own terms without a pesky boss lurking over your shoulder.

You're always bound by demand, which fluctuates but aside from that, a good strategy helps to do Instacart long-term.

Your strategy is gonna be based on you, your area, the types of orders, etc. But I've outlined some general Do's and Don'ts that I wish I had known before I started with Instacart years ago that still hold true today.

It is possible to start your journey with Instacart by developing a few strategies to maximize earnings and minimize wasted time.

I've compiled what I consider the most important Dos and Don'ts of being an Instacart Shopper to help you minimize wasted time and keep your ratings high so you can continue to snag higher paying batches.

Disclaimer: Please be advised that some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that at no extra cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you decide to signup for or purchase any products or services through those links.

If you've been meaning to sign up to become an Instacart shopper, go here. I'll link to this again at the end of the page so you can continue to read this nifty article. 

Yes, you're constantly bound by fluctuations in demand based on day of the week, weather, season, etc. But you can also stay ahead of the game by determining what you will and won't do as a Shopper.

My first week on Instacart was dreadful. My first day, I made $18 shopping one order and it took me over an hour to do that order. I made a little over $120 that first week. A year later, I made between $800 and $1,000 a week consecutively.

Since then, demand has fluctuated in my area, which as I said happens all the time in the gig economy. As a result, I recommend you sign up for one of the other food delivery services like DoorDash, UberEats or Grubhub. Check here for my comparison of each.  

I signed up for DoorDash, which has since become my main squeeze but I still go out on Instacart orders, I just haven't been able to snag super high paying orders like I used to until recently when demand picked back up for Instacart and demand for DoorDash and UberEats slowed down.

Super puzzling how that always happens, which is why I recommend that you sign up for another food delivery service aside from Instacart if you rely on the gig economy for money. Alternatively, if you're not set on food delivery and are looking to do serious freelance work, you can check out Solid Gigs, a pplatform that will send you freelance gigs based on your skill set. 

Over the years, I've done gig work in various forms but I always come back to food delivery because it's just so darn easy and convenient.

OK, so let's get back to the Dos and Don’ts that will help you succeed as an Instacart Shopper. These are based on my own experience and my buddies in the industry.

They are by no means all-inclusive but should help you when you’re just getting started. 

DON'T take no tip orders - ever!

Picture of cart with pennies

This goes without saying but in this industry, we depend on tips.

When you take no tip orders, you encourage Instacart to keep its mediocre pay structure and customer's bad habits of not tipping.

This needs to change and we have the power to change it by declining low paying orders that shouldn't even exist.

A no tip order is never OK and customers need to be made aware of that.

Part of why I've created this website is to raise awareness that our industry is just like any other industry that depends on tips. I know Instacart will increase its pay if the order has been sitting for a while (called a Boost) but I still would not take it.

I've taken a few no tip orders before where I was close to the store and Instacart had raised its Boost pay to $20 for that batch.

I no longer do this since I want to send a message to Instacart to help customers understand that this is a tip-based industry. I don't think it's always clear to the customer how it works but some customers also just don't care.

I've also taken no tip orders in hopes of customers adjusting their tip later and they did not. Ever! A customer who does not even leave $1 is NOT going to increase their tip later. If they do, it's a total exception so please don't take a no tip order in the first place.

I would say don't take low tipping orders but I've taken 1 item orders with just a $2 tip and a crazy low delivery distance because I knew it would only take me 10 minutes to complete and making $11 in ten minutes is not bad in this industry.

In general however, I'd stay away from any orders over 10 items that have less than a $5 tip.

A good Instacart batchExample of good Instacart batch

A good rule of thumb for a good 1-customer batch is if the $ amount is equal to or higher than the item count as you can see below. It's hard to grab screenshots of really good batches since they disappear in the blink of an eye.

Instacart will often group no or low tip orders with higher tipping orders, which is incredibly unfair to the higher tipping customer since that customer values your time and the other one doesn't. 

I'm hoping Instacart will eventually change its terrible pay structure but until then it's up to us as Instacart Shoppers to call the shots and only accept high paying orders.

DO think of Instacart as a real job

Spoiler alert: Instacart is a job, a customer service job nonetheless. Yes, it' job that allows for a ton of freedom and doesn’t have a pesky boss lurking over your shoulder, but it is a job nonetheless.

And in every job, you receive performance reviews and with Instacart you get ratings.

Consistent 5-star ratings generally mean access to higher paying batches, although Instacart is shifting slightly away from that now.

Still, simple, right?

Well, I have spoken to hundreds of customers and apparently things are not so simple at the Shopper level.

Why tho?

Any customer service job requires basic skills like communication, organization and friendliness. This job also requires basic knowledge of what good produce looks like as well as the attention to make sure packaging isn’t damaged and cans aren’t dented.

Still simple, right? Well, I’ve peeked into other Shoppers’ carts and talked to many customers over the last year and apparently moldy strawberries and wilted kale are more common than they should be.

Communication is key

Once you accept a batch, you’re focused on getting to the store as soon as you can, getting the customer the items they want in the best shape you can get them and communicate with the customer that you’re delighted to shop for them and you’ll let them know about any unavailable items, etc.

That way you set the stage and you’ll see right away if you have a communicative customer or if you’ll be on your own about the inevitable truth that is replacements.

Communicating is your insurance in case a customer complains later on. The best customers are very involved in their order and the most frustrating ones are the ones that don’t respond and also have no replacements.

I have basic greetings in my Notes app on my phone that I paste into the chat right as I start shopping to see if I have a communicative customer.

I change this based on whether I'm shopping for two customers and I let each know I'm shopping for another order.

Instacart also lets you customize a message so there is no excuse not to reach out to the customer at the start of your shopping even if they don't respond.

DO go the extra mile for the customer

In most jobs you need to go the extra mile to get recognition and at the same time have basic critical thinking skills.

It's the same with Instacart so start to understand out how grocery items are organized after shopping a few batches at your preferred stores so you don’t immediately say an item is unavailable.

Some Instacart Shoppers don’t understand that some brands have entire displays that the app does not always recognize so the app will tell you it’s in aisle 5 but it’s really in a display by the deli or in random places throughout the store.

Stonewall Kitchen is one of those brands. It has huge displays of their jams in different places in different stores but rarely in the aisle with the jam. 

Instacart Entenmann's displayEntenmann's display in middle of the store

Some salsa brands and pasta sauce brands are like that too as well as Entenmann’s baked goods.

As I said, if you don’t see any items of that brand, it’s most likely on display elsewhere but often you’ll see a brand and it’s just not quite the item you’re looking for.

In that case, you’re probably very close to the item so you may need to dig and move things around to find it. That’s especially true at Aldi, where you’ll often find an item that looks similar to the one you’re looking for but it’s maybe just a different flavor, chances are the item is behind that item so do dig a little.

Again, a little effort goes a long way. I also see shoppers talking on their phones while shopping. Again, this is your job for the time being and it requires focus so I don’t see how you can talk to a loved one while being an efficient and effective Shopper for your current customer.

When in doubt just ask a store employee

Instacart Shopper at grocery store

Before you message a customer saying something is out of stock, ask a store employee first. Ask someone if you don’t see any items of that brand in the aisle the app says it should be.

This is an indicator that the brand might be elsewhere.

Honestly, you have to have curiosity to find certain items, stores really don’t set some stuff up logically so you have to ask.

Just because an item is not in the aisle it’s supposed to be in, doesn’t mean it’s not in the store so do make an effort and ask.

For example, the store I frequent has an organic aisle right at the entrance that doesn’t have an aisle number. Sometimes items in that area are listed in another aisle but I know they’re in that first section so I’ll go check there once I couldn’t find them in the aisle the app said it would be.

Always be courteous to store employees. I see many Shoppers who are rude and don't even speak to grocery employees, they just hold up their phone. I've made some great friends at the stores I shop at the most who chat with me but also save me time when I'm looking for specialty items.

I really can't stress this enough. Grocery workers are not your minions and you’re not higher up on the food chain than them.

There are hundreds of thousands of Instacart Shoppers across the US and most store employees encounter dozens of Shoppers in a day with questions so please be respectful. You can hold up the phone and ask where the item is located but just be polite. 

That’s just common professionalism but I do see shoppers who won’t remove their earbuds and won’t even speak when placing a deli order or when they have a question about an item, they just hold up the phone. That’s nutty and won’t help you in the long run.

Most places have meat and seafood counters so if you need help, ask them, they’re usually very knowledgeable and will get the item for you or point you in the right direction.

DON'T make replacements

Willy nilly. Unfortunately, even 1,100+ orders into being a Shopper, I realize that many customers don’t have a replacement for most items. This is frustrating because it leaves you to guess or rely on Instacart’s suggestions which are pretty much always wrong.

Instacart replacement suggestion

I rarely make replacements because in my 1,100+ orders, the Instacart suggestions and my own replacement suggestions were wrong 9 out of 10 times so don’t bother making a replacement, just let the customer know something is out of stock and if they have a possible replacement in mind.

Instacart customer replacement

It’s weird psychology but most customers prefer to select a replacement or be presented with options rather than you making a replacement without contacting them.

Just message them and if they don’t respond, just refund the item. Trust me on this, yes you might lose a couple of $$ on the tip but you’ll get a good rating.

Customers appreciate when you let them know that you’ll be issuing a refund for an unavailable item even if they don’t respond.

Even though I’ve been doing this for a while, I still can’t real a customer’s mind about replacements and neither can Instacart so don’t replace things without confirming with the customer.

If it’s a 32oz Heinz ketchup, sure get a 24oz one but don’t go bigger in size unless they request it.

However, if they want Barilla Penne, don’t get Barilla spaghetti, see if they have another brand like Ronzoni Penne and send them a pic with that suggestion and the price.

If they don’t respond, I’d say go ahead and make that replacement but make sure the price is not significantly higher.

Customers are loyal to brands and oddly particular about sizes. Maybe that’s just my area but that’s just been my experience.

More often than not, you’ll have to refund an item for which there’s no replacement or where the replacement is not really comparable in price or size.

Yes, this cuts into your tip if the customer ties said tip to their total but it’s better to refund when you’re not sure or when you haven’t heard back from the customer than it is to have the customer end up with a replacement they don’t want.

Many people order weekly so they usually order ahead to stock up on items and you won’t leave them stranded if you refund an item. In the beginning, I’d add in a replacement recommended by Instacart when the customer didn’t respond and sure when it’s something like a white bread vs. another brand of white bread, go ahead but if it’s something more complicated, refund.

DO pay close attention to expiration dates and quality of produce

Make this a priority!

It’s crazy how many of my 5-star reviews have read:

She checked expiration dates on packaged lettuce and picked produce that wasn’t damaged.” No joke, c’mon, you’re a professional grocery shopper so please take a moment to educate yourself on what good produce looks like and what’s a good expiration date.

Prepackaged salad mixes trip Instacart Shoppers up quite a bit.

Generally speaking, you want a fresh salad mix like Olivia’s Organic to have an expiration date of 5+ days out, 7+ days if it’s a bigger container.

The store usually hides those behind the ones that expire first (probably hoping a mindless Instacart Shopper will just grab them) so just dig a little deeper and find the farthest expiration date out.

So yes, if the store only has one package left and it expires in the next day or two, just tell the customer. DO NOT SCAN IT IN. This isn’t one of those games where you just need to find the item, the item has to be in great shape.

See if the store has another brand of organic spring mix of the same size you could suggest if the customer doesn’t have it as replacement.

Just let the customer know via detailed message why you’re making the replacement and to let you know if that’s not OK, they’ll appreciate it even if they don’t respond.

Trust me, after talking to hundreds of customers, the biggest gripe is Instacart Shoppers not understanding the produce game. Here's a super quick video on produce.

Customers usually prefer a refund or you letting them know that the item doesn’t look good because it means that you’re actually doing your job rather than just matching an item in the store with a picture on your phone. 

I made the YouTube short below to show you expiration dates for common items. 

DON'T spread yourself too thin

Overwhelmed woman

Don't go chasing after the highest paying batch at stores you don't know, stick to the stores nearby and learn the layout of the ones that generally have higher paying batches.

And yes I was hoping you'd notice I was going for TLC. What can I say, I'm old!

Then see if you like shopping at those stores and get to know those stores really well. 

In other words, specialize in a handful of stores so you don’t take forever shopping and miss most of the items because you don’t know where the heck they are in that store.  

What's my personal strategy?

Here are the things I do that have helped me do well on Instacart in terms of ratings and earnings but I do understand that some of these are not possible for every Shopper since they vary by location (like rural areas) and other factors.

I live in an area with hundreds of stores within 15 miles so I'm very fortunate but some of these strategies work for those of you in more rural areas. 

I specialize in 3 grocery stores plus a big box store

I started specializing in 3 grocery stores in my town plus a big box store one town over. This kind of just naturally evolved and has served me quite well.

In general, big box stores like Sam’s Club and Costco can be tricky because they’re not on every corner like grocery stores so beware of crazy far delivery distances.

I’m 20 minutes from a Costco so I always make sure the delivery drops me back off close to where I live or an area that has the stores I prefer.

I’m close to a Sam’s club but I’ve seen 40 mile delivery distances that would put me in completely unknown territory and that’s just not how I want to spend my day.

Other than the big box store, I have a local store that's a regular grocery store with many lucrative batches, I do Aldi (yes many people hate Aldi but I've done very well with it since it's small and I know all the items they carry and where they are) and I have a third grocery store that I don't love as much but regularly has some good batches.

I absolutely branch out to a couple of other stores but only if I need to and batches are super low at my preferred stores.

I’m willing to travel to another town to get the batches at my preferred stores I mentioned above because I’ve perfected my knowledge of the stores and my time in and out of those stores so I prefer to travel to a preferred store in a town over rather than shopping at a store that I'm less familiar with in town.

You have to figure that part out based on your location though. 

I follow a simple formula to quickly determine if a batch that pops up is for me

Although I don’t limit myself if something comes along that doesn’t match this criterion, I generally don’t do batches with more than 65ish items.

I usually don’t care about the units as much because if I get a batch with 60 items and 100 units, I know I only have to find 60 items, not 100.

My general rule of thumb is to look at a batch by items and total $ but to do it quickly, I follow a simple step.

I know when the item number - let's say a 45 items matches or is around the $, in this case $45. This lets me know that a batch may be worthwhile.

Then, I just have to make sure the delivery distance isn't too far and there aren't any outrageous items like tons of cases of water, etc. and I'll grab the batch. I'm able to do all this in a fraction of a second so I'm still able to grab the batch before it's gone.

I know that's obviously not always gonna happen but that's served me well to at least quickly glance at a batch and see if it's lucrative.

Ideally, a 45 item order at my preferred store clocks in above $45 but I know I can do 45 items relatively quickly so even if it’s $40, I’d take it depending on whether it’s a slow day or not.

I’ve heard Shoppers say they don’t take anything under $28 but when you look at some of my smaller batches, they’re sometimes $25 for 10 items.

It would be foolish for me to say I don’t do anything under $25 so I use the above rule to determine whether a batch is worth my while.

I don't do retail stores

I don’t do Target, Best Buy, Lowe's, Sephora or any non-essential store because they each either have their own services like Shipt or also offer curbside pickup and shipping so there's no point of me going into a huge store I don't know to find weird items.

That's no fun. 

I have not seen a single lucrative batch at any of these stores and since they’re not on every corner like grocery stores, the delivery distances suck as well so I stick to mostly grocery stores as well as the occasional big box store like Sam’s club and Costco.

The next one is my personal strategy but it's also something I recommend you don't do. 

DON'T take 3-customer grouped orders

Instacart 3 full service orders

This is where Instacart needs to learn to treat its Shoppers and customers better. 3-batch orders are never lucrative when you actually do the math.

You have to juggle cart space, customers messaging you and manage checkout and delivery for three people. Those orders should be $40 just from Instacart plus tip.

Don't get me wrong, I’ve done hundreds of 2 batch orders that were very lucrative but I only recently did a 3 customer batch that resulted in a $82 ish pay.

That may sound great and honestly it was a good batch where each of the customers tipped 20 percent and I got heavy pay and distance but I rarely recommend making 3 orders in a batch a habit.

Grouped batches cost you time in terms of shopping and keeping things straight as well as delivery, and most of the time, you know one of the three is not tipping well and the delivery can take forever plus you have to keep the space in your cart(s) organized.

I went 8 months straight with a 5-star rating until one week when I took a 3-customer order and my rating dipped to 4.98 because I switched an item from customer 1 to customer 3.

Maybe you wanna take a decent batch that has 3 orders in the beginning as practice because it would teach you quite a bit about keeping things organized, I just wouldn’t make it a habit and I’ve talked to other Shoppers who’ve been doing this for years who’ve never done a 3 order batch.

These batches seem lucrative but have somewhat long delivery distances and you know one or two of those customers isn't tipping right, which is why Instacart grouped them.

Customers also hate this setup. I've talked to many who don't understand why they have to wait for the Shopper to shop for and deliver for three people when they're tipping $20+ for their order.

Instacart is in the business of making money and 3-customer orders are cheap for Instacart since they don’t have to pay you the base pay and often just barely increase that base pay for each customer. Look for the Instacart payment, the tip amount and the delivery distance and decide whether it’s one worth the effort and benefits you and your customers.

DON'T shop frozen items first

Frozen aisle in grocery store

Never ever shop for frozen items first even if they show up as priority.

I once followed the Priority notification for ice cream and the customer later reported it as damaged item because it had melted since it was a bigger order and had melted by the time I delivered it.

I shopped for it first and then it took me almost an hour to complete the order in the store and another 15 minutes in the car on a hot day. Plus the customer asked me to leave the order at their door, which at the time of day was in full sunlight.

I see Shoppers with tons of frozen stuff get in line to shop for deli items and that’s just a recipe for disaster especially if you’re a new Shopper and are still on the slow side.

I know Instacart has in the past shown priority items where there’s one flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream as priority and then another at the bottom of your list. Ice cream is meant to be frozen and if you have a 45-item order and you shop for ice cream first, that ice cream will sit in the cart for an hour, then go through checkout and then go into your (often warm) car.

By the time it gets to the customer, it’ll be a milkshake so please use common sense and start with other aisles first.

I usually knock out the deli first because let’s face it, that stuff is preserved beyond recognition so you don’t really have to worry about it.

Plus the stores are generally cool (but not cool enough to keep ice cream frozen) so with stuff that just needs to be refrigerated, you can get it toward the beginning.

Same with produce, it’s fine to shop for that in the beginning, just don’t get anything frozen until the end. Trust me on that. I’ve had customers tell me they know a good shopper by the way they go through the aisles and shop for frozen items last.

Customers can see what you add and when you add it so they know where you are in the store.

It really is important to think beyond the “oh I have items on a list and I gotta grab them and then I grab another order.”

It’s not DoorDash. I love DoorDash (see getting started with: DoorDashUberEats and Grubhub or a comparison of each, here) but there’s very little beyond the picking up an order at a restaurant and delivering that order.

I mean yes you'll have to deal with some unexpected situations at restaurants that are different from the things you experience on Instacart so I'm definitely not knocking DoorDash; I've completed close to 1,500 orders myself as a backup to Instacart. 

Instacart just requires more from you, which is why you need to be compensated for all your time and effort.

DO develop your own strategy

paper planes

I get it, my insights are based on my location in the Northeast but I hope you learned a few things that are standard across the country like not taking no tip orders, checking expiration dates and communicating with the customer. 

Of course, you'll have to determine what is worth your time and effort based on your location and demand in your area but the above are just some things that helped me get higher tips and minimize wasted time and effort on my end. I know some of you live in rural areas and have to travel to a city to get orders.

You can still follow many of the tips in this article since they're general in nature.

Ready to become an Instacart Shopper?


Related pages

If you're just curious about getting started, check out "getting started with Instacart", here. 

If you don't feel like remembering all this, here is a super quick 5 step training to help you succeed as an Instacart Shopper from the start.

If you want to find out more about how much Instacart pays on average, check that out here.

If you're looking to be an Instacart shopper but are also interested in DoorDash, UberEats or Grubhub, check out my direct comparison of DoorDash vs. UberEats vs. Grubhub, here. Or check out DoorDash vs. Instacart, here.

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