Craig Auster studies his iPhone in Magruder’s, a small, family-owned grocery store in the Chevy Chase section of the District of Columbia, and navigates his way to a crate of sugar snap peas.
He rips a plastic produce bag off the stand and meticulously sifts through the green peas, checking for any flaws, filling the bag and weighing it until it reaches precisely half a pound.
The bag of produce isn’t for the 28-year-old’s personal pantry. Auster, who wears a bright green T-shirt detailed with grocery illustrations, is a personal shopper for Instacart, a grocery delivery business that began in San Francisco in 2012 and launched in the Washington area four months ago.
Washington has no shortage of online grocery delivery businesses — there’s Peapod, Relay Foods and a handful of other services, including Safeway’s own delivery program.
But Erika Hard, city manager for Instacart, says the company’s model differs from others because it’s an on-demand service. It delivers most grocery orders in less than two hours to customers in the District and parts of northern Virginia and Maryland. A one-hour delivery option also is available for a slightly higher fee.
“If you’re coming home from work and you’re stuck in traffic, and you want some groceries at your door by the time you get home, we can accommodate that,” Hard says. Customers can also place advance orders for parties or events.
Those in the Washington area can select grocery items online or via the Instacart app from one of six local stores: Whole Foods, Safeway, Harris Teeter, Costco (no membership required), Yes! Organic Market and Magruder’s.
Once Instacart receives the order, Hard assigns the grocery list to one of the roughly 100 Instacart personal shoppers in the area.
In the parking lot outside of Magruder’s, Auster gets a text message on his phone directing him to his Instacart shopper app. A customer’s order of rice crackers, plantain chips, grapes, sugar snap peas, goat cheese and chocolates pops up.
He heads into the store and begins to fill the order. As he places items in his basket, he occasionally scans a barcode to make sure the item he selects is the correct variety. Then he checks it off the list on his app.
Auster joined the Instacart team about two months ago. The Capitol Hill resident had finished working on a campaign and was in between jobs.
“I was looking in the food/beverage/hospitality section (of Craigslist), thinking maybe I would be a waiter, and then I saw this posting and it just seemed so much more fun and interesting,” says Auster, who admits he’s always enjoyed grocery shopping.
“It’s fun to see what people are ordering; it gives you ideas for yourself, too.”