As Thanksgiving nears, I already know that I’m going to give thanks for signing up to be an Instacart shopper last year.
My career as an Instacart shopper began in December after my mom mentioned it in passing over the phone. Basically, I could get paid to shop at grocery stores in the Champaign area during winter break with no set schedule, which sounded like a pretty sweet deal to me.
If you’re unfamiliar with how Instacart shopping works, it pays its shoppers a base payment plus a tip to go into stores, scan items into an app and deliver them to the customer who ordered them.
What I didn’t take into consideration when I signed up in the winter is that the service would explode in popularity when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. Orders were coming in like crazy for the next two months or so afterward.
The gig work that I had been doing in my free time for the past three months had suddenly taken on a miniscule importance for me, and a serious importance for some. Instacart and some other services like it (Shipt or Postmates) – are “luxury” services due to their associated fees. But for a lot of people, they were suddenly the safest way for at-risk individuals to get groceries.
Some of the stories I’ve gathered during my time on the front lines have made me step back and think about humanity, some in a good light and others in an odd light.
I’ve delivered orders to run-down apartment buildings and some of the nicest neighborhoods in Champaign and Peoria over the past several months.
My biggest takeaway from this experience is that customers are genuinely appreciative when somebody does something nice for them. That isn’t to put me on a pedestal, but rather to say that they appreciate the efforts of gig workers, delivery drivers and the like for making the efforts associated with that style of work.
And believe me, I’ve had a handful of orders that have nearly pushed me beyond my limits.
There was an order in April wherein I was set to deliver six bags and a 12-pack of soda to a customer in a Champaign nursing home. This one’s on me. It should’ve been two trips to the resident’s room, but I tried to carry everything in one load to save time. I mistakenly parked clear on the other side of the complex and went to the wrong entrance several times. Carrying six heavy bags and a box on a hot spring day while completely lost on a nursing home campus is a great way to feel like a complete idiot.
I delivered the order looking like I had just run a marathon and retreated to my car in defeat.
In the hundreds of orders that I’ve taken pre-and-post-pandemic, I’m sure I’ve had a few bad apples mixed in among the kind folks. I had one mom revoke her tip in March because Schnucks didn’t have a thermometer for her young child. It’s not my fault that you can’t find a baby thermometer in the middle of a pandemic, but okay.
These bad examples don’t begin to outweigh the good I’ve experienced though. One customer that I encountered this summer in Urbana taped a thank-you note to her door on a contactless order. One customer in Savoy gifted me a homemade mask in the summer, and it’s still in my regular rotation.
I’ve had a few customers between Champaign and Peoria leave little bowls of candy outside for delivery workers. People always ask what’s fun with a fun-sized bag of candy, and while I can’t answer that, I can say that it is much appreciated after a tough order at Kroger.
One conversation I had with an elderly woman in Peoria still stands out to me. It was over the summer and she’d had a relative order for them due to a visual impairment. She asked where I went to school and what my field of interest was – Bradley and sports broadcasting – and we talked for a brief time of her favorite voices from years past.
It sounds pretentious, but it’s truly the little conversations that make it the most worthwhile.
My experience shopping for Instacart has been overwhelmingly positive. Not just because I can get through an Aldi faster than anybody else my age right now, but because I’ve dealt with so many great people during a tough time.
It’s easy to flip on the news or scroll through social media and see doom and gloom, for good reason. At best, these are not normal times. But the next time I see a bag of apples at Costco, it helps me to know that there are still some good ones left out there.