Saturday, January 2, 2016

Groceries without a Car: A Comparison of Options in Portland, OR

I use grocery delivery a lot because I don't have a car. I do use Car2go and Zipcar when I need to, but grocery delivery is a more viable option because the delivery fees tend to be less than the cost of car rental and it doesn't cost me any time. This is a short article where I will compare my experiences with 3 different grocery delivery options in the Portland, OR area.


Years ago when I lived in downtown Seattle, I used as they were the only grocery delivery option at the time (we're talking around 2007). Sadly, their whole online experience hasn't changed a bit. It's still really clunky, specifying substitutions is pretty pointless, and you ultimately have to rely upon the paper receipt the driver gives you for any accurate record of your order history.

You can order from their website online or from your phone. Groceries are arranged by aisle and you can drill down to more specific items, making it very easy to browse. The search functionality is pretty solid as well, I've had no trouble determining if they carry a particular item. You can also access your order history, but note that if any substitutions were made it won't be reflected there. Your order history only shows what you submitted as your order, not what you actually received. You can only access your last order and a complete list of everything you ordered.

Order communication happens via email or the driver will call you on whatever phone number you've provided.

Grocery Selection and Quality

The main reason I continue to use them is they are the only grocery delivery option where you can order beer and wine. In addition, they are the only delivery service that provides their drivers with carts, so I prefer to get bulk heavy items from them.

The only fresh produce I buy from them is bananas and organic berries when they have them in stock. I've ordered organic lettuce, organic tomatoes, and organic cucumbers from them in the past and I've been really disappointed with the quality. The produce just doesn't have any flavor and tends to spoil quickly as it's typically imported from Mexico or Europe. I buy frozen vegetables from them often, the O Organics line offers some good values. Again, the flavor and quality is nowhere near as good as more expensive brands, but in my case I like the lower price.

Besides beer and wine, I typically order soda and mineral water. The price varies, but they sell San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water in glass bottles. I typically order a dozen or so per order. I really wish I could just get a case but really it's no big deal.

I also get household items like laundry detergent that are cheaper through them than through Amazon.

Order Modification and Substitutions

If you need to modify your order, you can do so easily on their website as long as it's prior to the day your order is going to be delivered .If you need to make any modifications to your order on the same day of delivery or if you need to notify the driver of any delivery changes (eg, you won't be home so call a different phone number instead), good luck with that. The customer service is great but slow to respond to changes. I suspect it's their computer software.

You can specify substitutions at the time of ordering but they only have 3 options and no custom text area. The options are "Same Brand, Different Size", "Different Brand, Same Size", or "No Substitution". This has been the same since I first used their service almost 10 years ago.


Groceries are packaged using plastic bags, sometimes with one small item per bag. Depending on what and how much you order, you could end up with anywhere from 5-10 plastic bags. They put stickers on the plastic bags which can make them difficult to re-use.

Delivery Times

They don't do same-day delivery, the soonest you can get your groceries is the next day. They offer 1-hour, 2-hour, and 4-hour windows for different delivery rates.

Delivery Cost

The cost of delivery varies. If you spend over $150 and order 5 items from their special list, you get free delivery. Delivery is $9.95 if your order is over $100. There are time slots that give you discounts as well, for instance a 4-hour time slot will give you a $6 discount off the delivery fee. So if you're spending $100, you can get delivery for $3.95 if your time is flexible. There is no tip option; the drivers are Safeway employees.

Amazon Prime Now (New Seasons)

I love shopping at New Seasons, they offer very competitive prices for locally produced food item and the overall quality is fantastic. I've only shopped at New Seasons through the Amazon Prime Now app, so I can't really compare any of the other stores. My main gripe is you can only order groceries and access your order history from your phone. The user interface leaves a lot to be desired, it's hard to just browse, you end up having to search specifically for the thing you're looking for, or you end up browsing over 100 items in a very broad category. When you submit your order, the status page does not automatically refresh. There is no way to specify substitutions, usually an item is either simply not included if it is out of stock or if a lesser number than what you've requested is available, the shopper may text you and ask if that would work. It varies by shopper. Another gripe I have, sometimes produce shows up in strange quantities that don't seem right. Like tomatoes might say $2.99 each when I think it's supposed to be $2.99 per pound. I tried ordering one one time and ended up with one small tomato for $2.99.

The user experience isn't nearly as bad as Safeway but it does have some issues. I blame part of that on this being fairly new so hopefully they'll improve it over time. I'd really like to see it available on the desktop because the whole phone browsing experience can be a little annoying.

Grocery Selection and Quality

I've always gotten excellent produce from New Seasons via Amazon Prime Now. I've never gotten anything that's brown, too ripe, or smashed. I also order most of my meat through this app. The only gripe I have here is if you order something like 2 1-pound cuts of meat in hopes of getting 1 2-pound cut of meat, you end up with 2 separate packages of meat. I typically order the New Seasons brand of a variety of things including milk, eggs, and butter and the quality and price are comparable to more expensive name brands in the same category, like Organic Valley.

They have a really great selection and probably the best value (price for quality) of all of the grocery options. However, the selection is only a small subset of what you can buy in store.

Order Modification and Substitutions

You can't modify an order once you've submitted it; you have to submit a new order.

You can't specify substitutions in the App UI. The shopper will contact you to let you know if something is out of stock and offer you any substitution options if available. Substitutions really vary by shopper. I've had them only provide the item if it was just a lesser quantity than what I'd originally ordered; when I asked if I could get something else instead, I was told to place a new order. Other shoppers have offered replacements. I think it's because the service is still new, so they are still working out issues.


The shoppers show up in their own car with a pile of paper bags. They do not typically have a cart or anything special to transport your groceries in. New Seasons has the best deal on mineral water, 2 liter glass bottles for $1.50 each. I was buying these in large quantity regularly, but stopped because I had to meet the shopper with a cart and it seemed like it was a big hassle for them.

My biggest gripe with Amazon Prime Now is they consistently use large paper bags. The paper bags are very strong and don't break. I can reuse them for recycling so it's not a huge deal, but I'd love to see a reusable tote option. The shoppers typically put any meat or produce into plastic produce bags instead of using paper produce bags, and they are very bag happy. Meaning, anything they can put into a bag, it's gonna go in a bag. If you get a squash or a watermelon, it will end up in a plastic bag.

Delivery Times

Amazon Prime Now offers same day delivery in a matter of hours. I've never had a delivery come late, but they usually come towards the end of the time range I've specified. You get regular updates of your delivery status via text message and there is a map in the order status page that shows you where your delivery currently is. The only issue is it doesn't automatically update so you have to reload the order status page manually if you want to see any updates.

Delivery Cost

Currently there is no delivery fee but you are expected to tip the delivery person at least 10%. You do it through the app when you order and it shows up as a separate charge. If you made the minimum order of $30, delivery would cost you $3.

Instacart (Whole Foods)

Instacart is my favorite delivery experience. You can order both from your phone or on your computer. The app does an excellent job of updating you of your order status and it's easy to browse order history and groceries both on the web and on your phone.

Grocery Selection and Quality

Overall the quality of the items I've gotten from Whole Foods via Instacart is pretty good but I have gotten some borderline produce before. I strongly suspect it's because it's what Whole Foods had available, since I do shop there myself sometimes and have to pass on some produce. I've gotten potatoes that were rotten in the middle, green beans with a lot of brown spots, and strawberries that started getting a little too ripe within 2 days of purchase. I would argue they have the best selection as far as any of the grocery delivery options go. Pretty much anything you can buy in their store (minus alcohol) you can buy through the app. For meat, I still prefer to go with New Seasons because it's more likely to be local and I generally trust the quality more. As well New Seasons is often a bit cheaper. That being said, it's often a toss up for me because I like the overall user experience with Instacart so much better than the other options that sometimes I just suck it up.

Order Modification and Substitutions

You can modify your order after you place it until a shopper starts working on it. It's really easy to do and you don't have to jump through hoops. The only downside is if you selected a delivery time in the next 1-2 hours, the shopper will pick up the order pretty quickly so chances are your window to modify will be very small. You can, however, leave a note for your shopper and they can modify the order.

Specifying substitutions is really easy, the app lets you specify what you want instead, and the shopper will always contact you with any questions.


Instacart does the best job of minimizing waste. Groceries are delivered in a (really strong!) reusable tote bag and you can give your old tote bags to the delivery person to reuse. The Instacart shoppers typically lean towards putting produce into paper bags and generally limiting extra packaging (for instance if you get a squash, it will just be loose in the bag). After an Instacart grocery delivery, I love not having to deal with a pile of boxes or bags after my Instacart delivery. They are the least wasteful of all the options, and tend to reflect my own habits when I do my own shopping.

Delivery Times

Instacart offers same day delivery in a matter of hours. My deliveries usually come at the earliest part of the time range. The app does the best job of all of the options as far as delivery status updates go.

Delivery Cost

Instacart charges a delivery fee (varies according to store) and you are also expected to tip the driver at least 10% of your total. You can pay a flat yearly fee of $99 for "Instacart Express". It's only worth it if you think you'll spend more than $100 a year in delivery fees. In my case, I order from Whole Foods at least 2x per month, so I would save $140 a year. If you spend the minimum, which is $30, then delivery would cost $13. If you paid for Instacart Express, then it would cost you $3.

Comparisons to Going Myself

To put delivery costs and time frames into perspective, I decided to estimate how much it typically costs me to go to the grocery store myself. I don't own a car, so my options are public transit, car service, or car rental.

Public Transit

From where I live, the total time to get to either New Seasons or Whole Foods is about 20 minutes by transit. The cost is $2.50 and about 60-90 minutes of my time (40 minutes there and back, 20-50 minutes of shopping time). I can only buy as much as I can carry, so no large quantities of water, wine, or beer.

Car Service

I could call a taxi or use a ride sharing option like Uber or Lyft. In those cases, the cost of transit (depending on where I'm going) would be whatever the rates are for 2-3 miles. This is usually anywhere from $5-$7 each way. Another option would be to take transit to the store (20 minutes, $2.50) and take a car home ($5-$7, 10 minutes), which means I could buy large items. 

This comes out to 30 minutes of total transportation time (20 minutes by bus there, 10 minutes by car back) plus 20-50 minutes of shopping time, for a grand total of 50-80 minutes. Cost of transportation is $7.50-$9.50. Hiring a car both ways shaves 10 minutes off the total time so it's 40-70 minutes but brings the transportation total up to $10-$14. 

Car Rental

Finally, car sharing with Zipcar and Car2go are other options to consider. I usually get the car for an hour and a half in case of any issues or delays and then drop the reservation down to an hour if I return it in that time frame. This usually costs me $15. Car2go allows me to park and not incur charges while I'm in the store. Travelling to Whole Foods or New Seasons costs about $5 one way (pretty close to Uber). The only trade off is I need to be able to get a car when I leave or else I'll need to call a taxi or take transit to get home. That could make getting large items complicated. Also traffic is a consideration, if I don't want to be stuck in rush hour or in a crowded grocery store with long lines, I have to avoid shopping during certain time windows.

So with using a car, we're looking at $10-$15 total plus 20 minutes of transportation time (10 minutes each way) plus 20-50 minutes of shopping time, so 40-70 minutes of time.


To get the best value out of grocery delivery, you should order larger quantities of food for a longer period of time. Unfortunately, I don't do that because I find I end up throwing away a lot of food, which is basically throwing away money. I cook from scratch and use fresh ingredients, so things will go bad if I don't eat them in time. This means I order groceries 2-3 times per week.

Based on my preferences, my recommendations for the 3 delivery options I've discussed are as follows:

Safeway: Beer, Wine, Bottled Water, Soda, Bulk Household Items; Avoid produce
Amazon Prime Now (New Seasons): Dairy, Produce, Meat, Eggs
Instacart (Whole Foods): Fresh herbs, Pantry, Convenience Foods, Anything New Seasons is out of


Grocery delivery is a good value in terms of delivery cost and time. The highest delivery cost given my use cases is Instacart and the lowest is Amazon Prime Now. Safeway is the best option for bulk (and the only option for alcohol), if you don't need same day delivery and can be at home for the longer delivery window. The cheapest monetary cost is taking transit to the grocery store ($2.50), but it also has the highest time cost.

Update (2/07/2016):

I recently discovered a feature in Instacart that puts it miles ahead of the other grocery options. You can make a custom request for an item that you don't see listed on the website. I did this recently when I needed some Star Anise. I know for a fact that Whole Foods carries it in its bulk spices section. It, however, wasn't showing up on the website. So, I put in a request and bam, I got my bulk Star Anise. Seriously cool feature I'd love to see more services like this adopt!