In today's app economy, part-time work just isn't what it used to be.
Once upon a time, a part-time job at a supermarket would have meant spending hours behind a cash register. These days, a part-time grocery job could mean spending hours in your car waiting for an order to come in -- and not necessarily getting paid for that time.
As Instacart, a grocery delivery app that pairs customers with personal shoppers, continues to increase in popularity, some employees at the much-hyped startup are speaking out about what it's really like to do their jobs. Their experiences raise a number of questions about what the future holds for increasingly popular apps that offer on-demand services, from car rides to vacation rentals to home cleaning.
Instacart contracts with 4,000 independent personal shoppers, who work in 15 cities around the country. Shoppers receive a digital shopping list from customers and then pick out those items at a local grocery store, before showing up at the customer's door with the goods. In return, the shoppers are "compensated based on a formula that factors in the number of orders per shift and the number of items per order," according to a company spokeswoman. "During busy shifts, shoppers can earn $20 or more an hour depending on tips.” The company's website says shoppers "make up to $25 an hour."
When shifts aren't busy, several employees said their minimum hourly base pay was $10, and that their typical hourly pay usually hovered around that figure. Instacart declined to confirm whether it offers base pay, and some Instacart workers told HuffPost they are not offered an hourly guaranteed wage.
“It’s a really strange job, and there are many weeks where you’re just sitting in the car waiting for orders and hoping something comes in, not being paid to be there,” one of Instacart’s personal shoppers, a 24-year-old college dropout based in Chicago, told The Huffington Post in an interview. “But it’s keeping gas in my car. I’m working a job that requires gas that is essentially just paying for my car. It feels like selling my hair to buy a hairbrush.”
The employee, who did not wish to be identified for fear of losing his job with the company, said that during his first week with Instacart, he made about $350 working just three days. At the end of the week, however, he made a mistake on an order and received a negative customer rating, which led to fewer and smaller orders to fill. Because he’d only been working for a few shifts, it took some time for his "shopper score" -- and his pay -- to bounce back. Meanwhile, his better-rated colleagues were getting more lucrative opportunities.
He would have quit months ago, he said, but he needs the money to keep his car, which he uses to get to his other two part-time jobs.
“It feels like I’m playing a video game, except in real life for real money," he said.
Another shopper who worked with the company in Philadelphia for six months last year said the amount of driving required by the gig sometimes meant spending more money on gas than she earned over a five-hour shift making deliveries to neighborhoods and suburbs located more than a half-hour’s drive from her home near Center City. The 31-year-old entrepreneur is no longer with the company.
“For a part-time gig to earn some extra cash, sure, [the pay was fair],” the former shopper, who also did not want to be identified by name, told HuffPost. “Not really for a main source of income because it's minimum wage and very physically and mentally taxing.”
Not all Instacart workers are disenchanted, of course. Another employee in Chicago, a 27-year-old film student and musician who started shopping for Instacart two months ago, told HuffPost he is “overall pretty grateful” for the work. He praised the experience as “kind of fun” -- like being a contestant on the defunct game show “Supermarket Sweep.” He plans to stick around.
“There are days when I’m on point and can see the order, and it’ll be like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ and I can just map out the whole store in my head and know where everything will be,” he said. “Other days, I’m just staring [down an aisle] like, ‘Where is the molasses?’ Those moments to me are the worst because in my mind I feel the clock moving.”
Lace, a 28-year-old performance artist who started working as an Instacart shopper in Houston last year but has since transferred to Los Angeles, also said she "loves" working for the company.
"It's really easy work that pays well," Lace told HuffPost.
The worst part, she said, is dealing with "pushy and demanding" customers who don't tip, even after she lugs heavy items -- like cases of bottled water -- into their homes. When Instacart shoppers order multiples of the same heavy item, like cases of water or bags of cat litter, the company formula still counts those as "one" item, shoppers explained. As a result, getting the order to the customer's house doesn't always come with a bulk-order bonus.
"Some complain about the price of produce, then you get to their place and they live in a giant mansion in the hills," Lace added. "Catering to every whim of the upper crust, when you're just trying to hustle through your shift, can be aggravating, but we do our best."
Sunil Raman, a general manager at Instacart, told HuffPost that the company's data on the continued activity of its shopper fleet indicates that most shoppers are happy with the gig.
"There are bound to be bumps in the road, but we’re really working hard to help our shoppers along the way," Raman said.
Scrolling through dozens of Instacart worker reviews on Glassdoor.com, a site that lets people post anonymous reviews and salary information about companies, some common themes emerge: People posting on the site described being happy with the flexible scheduling, a high level of autonomy and a relatively relaxed work environment. Other posters complained about sometimes-unpredictable pay and the isolation of spending most of a work shift alone, as well as the financial stress of paying for a vehicle, gas, tolls and smartphone -- the engine that powers it all.
Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University who has been dubbed the “go-to expert” on the so-called sharing economy, said the conditions are ripe for a company like Instacart to expand rapidly, as on-demand apps continue to grow in popularity. (The sharing economy, for the uninitiated, describes an emerging business category catering to individuals who rent or borrow goods, such as cars or apartments, instead of buying them.) Instacart also sees greater odds for success thanks to the availability of apps and smartphones that use GPS, technologies that weren't in people's pockets when dot-com flameouts like Kozmo and Webvan attempted grocery delivery and failed.
“It’s very easy for someone to get a GPS-enabled smartphone, so your labor pool is potentially huge, and the technology in the stores has also become far more amenable to this,” Sundararajan said. “The click-and-collect model of how we buy stuff has become increasingly possible because of all of this.”
Still, the success of a company like Instacart ultimately depends on the quality of service offered by its workers, the vast majority of whom are independent contractors who do not earn health insurance, vacation days or paid sick leave. Instacart's full-time employees -- developers, managers and sales reps, for example -- do enjoy such benefits, but there are only about 100 of these positions at the company.
Sundararajan argued that this business model is risky for Instacart and other firms like it because it hands over so much control to workers who don't feel particularly invested in the company's overall health. Workers have detailed similar experiences at other rapidly growing apps, Uber and HomeJoy among them.
Sundararajan suggested that a company like Instacart consider, at minimum, pairing newbie shoppers with expert mentors when they are starting out.
“Eventually these companies’ brand comes from consistent high quality, and that rests almost entirely in the hands of freelance workers,” Sundararajan said. “It’s simply smart capitalism to have a healthy workforce of people motivated to work for you.”
Raman, the Instacart manager, told HuffPost the company does "try to incorporate feedback [from shoppers] into all the improvements we make in the business.”
He said the company formed a "shopper happiness" team late last year, which provides support to workers through a shopper hotline that's available 18 hours a day. The team is also responsible for shopper roundtables to inform how the company's software is designed, as well as shopper parties and other get-togethers.
Hunter Stuart contributed to this story from New York.
Clarification: A previous version of this story described Instacart's shoppers as employees; they are independent contractors.