Curbside pickup exploded during the pandemic (for obvious reasons), and while a select group of the public still chooses to shop this way for safety reasons, most retail stores and grocers kept the service around for another reason: We love convenience.
This is most evident when it comes to groceries, where curbside makes up a substantial portion of year-over-year revenue growth. Still, there is a big downside– you often don’t get precisely what you ordered. If you’re shopping in the store and they don’t have broccoli, you can pivot and choose cauliflower. If a curbside order fails, you just don’t have a vegetable for dinner that night, or have to wait a few hours for another order to process, with no better chance of success.
After three years of exclusively shopping curbside, I am now a qualified expert. Here are my hacks for making sure you get what you ordered.
Shop from multiple outlets
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Even as an in-person shopper, I would often visit multiple stores on a single grocery run, because they each offered different options. A nearby Krogers carried the good baguettes, but the Safeway was more likely to have a selection of peppers. The same rules hold true for curbside. Accept ahead of time that you’ll need to do separate orders, and you’ll create a backup system of sorts: Items that aren’t in stock at store one on Monday, you can order from store two on Thursday. This makes each shop less critical.
For critical items, choose a service that allows you to talk to your shopper
Most grocery stores don’t have a specific upcharge for curbside delivery, because you’re going to the store to pick it up. In some regions, you can also curbside pickup from Instacart. Whether you’re curbsiding or choosing delivery, Instacart has one serious benefit—it lets you talk directly to your shopper, as they are shopping. When you have a critical need, like an item that will be the centerpiece at a big dinner, it’s time to pay the Instacart surcharge, which usually includes a small curbside fee or a tip and a delivery fee.
When using the web interface or the app, as soon as you are assigned a shopper, you’ll have the ability to talk to them via chat. Be proactive, and reach out as soon as you are assigned to introduce yourself, say thank you, and stress the importance of them reaching out about substitutions. This will be effective most of the time, and you should tip accordingly. In my experience, when one item is out, the shopper will snapshot that section of the aisle so you can see what is in stock and choose.
Use the notes section
Most grocers include a place to add notes for each item in your order, including possible alternatives. Skipping these notes and options is a big mistake, because they can give your shopper critical information to help them make smart substitutions (the shopping software itself often makes terrible recommendations). If you’re getting deli meats, for instance, this is where you can add notes about how thickly you’d like it sliced. When I order vegetables, I always use the notes to clarify that I mean one pound of carrots, not one carrot.
Pay attention to your notifications
Most grocers will notify you via text if the store does not have an item, and ask you to approve substitutions. Responding immediately is critical, because it’s the only chance you have to make another choice. If you don’t respond, they use their best judgement, and you can usually reject or accept it at pickup.
If the options presented to you via text aren’t acceptable, you also have the opportunity to call the store and talk to someone about your order. This is a move you should really only make when it’s critical—everyone is working hard, and you generally don’t want to bother workers during their shift.
Get to know your curbside staff
After a few visits, you’ll notice that most stores have people specifically assigned to curbside, and it is well worth your while to not just be polite to them, but friendly. Say thank you, and mean it. Have the trunk open for them, ask how they are, etc. They’re people, too, and will start to recognize your name and face, just as much as you recognize theirs.
Order at the right time
When humanly possible, it’s smart to order what you need before you need it. Last minute shopping means added stress, since the store might not be able to fulfill an item you need exactly when you need it. Give yourself time to place a backup order (or go to the store yourself).
But ordering on the right day of the week is just as important. On slower, mid-week days, your order is likely to get more attention than on a busy Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Use the coupons to offset higher online prices
Curbside orders are more expensive for a variety of factors. Certainly you can more easily compare prices in the store, and catch in-store sales. The price of products for curbside may be different from in store prices to account for overhead. In some cases, you need to meet a minimum order size or pay a pickup fee. The best way to offset these extra costs is through the use of coupons. Even if you are not a coupon user in the store, online coupons are easier to add to your order. As you shop, look for icons that tell you an item has a coupon available, and you can clip it right from the item page and have it waiting in the checkout. You can also filter products by what’s on sale.