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How not to be a jerk while ordering groceries during a pandemic

Food and grocery delivery workers explain what online shoppers should do to make their work safer and easier.

Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain shops for groceries for a customer at the Safeway in Menlo Park, California.
An Instacart shopper shops for a customer at the Safeway in Menlo Park, California, last year before the coronavirus outbreak.
Nick Otto for the Washington Post
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

As more municipalities around the US recommend or mandate that residents stay at home to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, online orders for grocery deliveries are soaring.

During the week of March 2, even before several US regions imposed stricter social distancing rules in the past week, Instacart, Amazon, and Walmart grocery delivery services each saw at least a 65 percent sales increase compared to the same time last year, according to estimates from Earnest Research. Meanwhile, as more restaurants close their dining rooms, many people are also relying on meal deliveries from apps like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates.

But for the people on the other end of the deliveries who are risking their health to deliver food to the rest of us (and pay their bills), the work comes with a long list of challenges. In the past, those have included everything from companies playing games with their tips to unpredictable wages and no insurance. Now, these workers are likely increasing their risk of contracting the coronavirus while either picking up or delivering an order.

While there is no evidence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, that the new coronavirus has infected someone via food or food packaging, at least one study has shown that the virus has the ability to live on some surfaces like cardboard and plastic as long as a day or more.

Recode spoke to more than a dozen food and grocery delivery workers who are still working during the pandemic to find out what online shoppers should be doing to make their work safer and easier during this time. Here are some of their tips. Follow them.

If the app offers a no-contact delivery option, use it

Social distancing is impossible if you’re expecting a delivery person to meet you at the door or to come in. To solve that, several delivery apps have introduced no-contact deliveries — meaning orders are left on the customer’s doorstep. Some apps, like DoorDash, are making that delivery option the default during the pandemic. If it’s not the default but is an option, choose it if you’re physically able.

Tip and tip well

Many delivery people rely on tips to make a living, either because they are contractors with unpredictable wages and no benefits, or because they have low base salaries even if they are employees. Former Eater executive editor Helen Rosner once wrote in regard to delivery tips, “You’re paying for the privilege of not leaving your home, not directly compensating the deliveryperson for the minimum wage equivalent of his or her labor. The absolute minimum value you should place on that is $5, which you should tip.”

So if $5 is the bare minimum during normal times, what do you tip during a pandemic? Some services, like Instacart, often place a default 5 percent tip on orders from the start. But many customers are ordering items that end up being out of stock, which automatically decreases the tip amount that delivery people receive as the order total drops.

“If a customer can afford to add even another 5 percent of the order as a tip, this will go a long way,” one Instacart worker, Sandra Wiggins, told Recode.

Others, like Amazon Fresh, include a suggested default tip as a dollar amount. Consider increasing that number if you have the means.

Another Instacart shopper said that in light of the out-of-stock issues, customers should consider taking a different approach and choose a dollar amount rather than a percentage, which many apps allow, including Instacart.

“Due to unavailability of certain items at this time, which [customers] still add to the order in the hopes of receiving them, a flat tip amount would be appreciated for the effort,” another veteran shopper said.

And if you are ordering directly from a restaurant, consider what you’d normally tip — and then add more.

Don’t lower a tip after a delivery has been completed

Many delivery services allow a customer to adjust a tip after an order is placed. Some, like Amazon Fresh, give customers 24 hours. Others, like Instacart, give customers three full days. Several delivery people who spoke to Recode called on delivery companies to remove this option during the crisis because some customers are lowering tips after delivery, even during the pandemic.

Instacart shoppers and delivery people often evaluate whether they want to accept an order based on the estimated tip and company payout that Instacart’s app displays after the order is placed but before a shopper accepts it. Shoppers believe that some customers intentionally set a high tip when they place an order so that a shopper quickly agrees to accept it, but later lower it after the delivery is completed.

“Tip baiting is real ... especially right now!” one worker wrote in a message to Recode. “It’s awful.”

An Instacart spokesperson said the average tip has increased 30 percent in the last month, and that customers have left tips unchanged or increased them after a delivery on 99.5 percent of orders.

Either way, don’t be in that other 0.5 percent.

Be on call for your shopper or delivery person in case things change

If you’re ordering groceries from a service like Instacart or Shipt, customers should remember that their shoppers complete orders by shopping from normal store shelves — which are struggling to keep in-demand items in stock — and not from warehouses.

“Instacart needs to make it clear to ALL customers that they have to be at least somewhat involved as we shop, or let us force-refund out of stock items!” said Lisa Boring, an Instacart shopper. “Even longtime customers need to be reminded that we are stuck at the store and can NOT check out until they approve refunds and/or substitutions.”

Boring said she waited 40 minutes on Tuesday for a customer to approve a refund or substitution.

“When I arrived finally at her home (after calling her), she apologized and said she had been a customer for quite some time but had never been asked to do this before,” Boring said.

Don’t give a crappy rating if an item is out of stock

Some delivery services like Shipt and Instacart say they are disregarding all ratings below five stars for their shoppers and delivery people during this time — no matter the reason — because of complaints related to out-of-stock issues. But not all of them are. So do the right thing with ratings. They can determine which orders a delivery person gets access to and when they get access.

But the new ratings policy, which is a positive for some workers, does have a downside for others, some shoppers say. Instacart previously gave top-rated shoppers advance access to new orders so they had the option of picking good ones first. But the company temporarily eliminated that perk for its best shoppers when it decided to forgive ratings under five stars.

“Previously, I was able to sit at home, pick and choose and wait to see something worth my time,” one highly rated shopper in Pennsylvania, who wished to remain anonymous, told Recode. “When Instacart suspended [advance access for top shoppers] this week, it’s a free-for-all. I have not seen a batch this week that was equivalent to probably the third or fourth worst batch last week.”

Suck it up if the order is late or an item is wrong

More than ever, shoppers and delivery people are running into problems with orders: hour-long waits on the phone to talk to their company’s shopper support representatives, out-of-stock issues in stores, customers not responding in a timely fashion to their questions sent via texts or in-app messages, and even lines to get into stores.

There are many stressful jobs across the world right now. This is one of them. Don’t make it worse.