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Upcoming changes in the Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service in Seattle are causing some longtime customers to think twice. Is it worth the new $299/year Prime Fresh subscription? What about one of these newer services like Instacart, or delivery from a traditional supermarket like Safeway?

grocerylogosWe’ve been conducting some tests, and we have some answers.

GeekWire ordered the same 11 items — Organic Red Delicious Apples, an 18.2 oz box of Kellogg’s Crunchy Raisin Bran, an 8-pack of Duracell Coppertop AAA batteries, and so on — from three online grocery services: Amazon Fresh, Safeway.com and Instacart. We had the three orders delivered to our doorstep by each service.

(See our chart below for the full shopping list. We’re planning to donate as many of the groceries as possible to our local food bank.)

We compared factors including product prices, quality and condition of produce and meat, ease of ordering, delivery process, convenience and general experience. Eleven items do not represent a comprehensive study, but replicating the order across the three services taught us a few things about the new world of grocery delivery.

Instacart’s premium experience

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The biggest insight, at least in our test, was the much higher price of the groceries that we ordered on Instacart — $70.42, before tax and tip, without a delivery fee. That compared with a $50.41 subtotal for the same 11 items on Amazon Fresh, and $55.65 on Safeway.com.

Instacart’s higher price resulted from a significant markup on the products it picked up and delivered to us from our neighborhood QFC grocery store.

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In addition to making the purchases above, we checked prices by visiting the neighborhood QFC store where our groceries were picked up by Instacart.

icecreamIn each case, the markup was significant. The ice cream that was $7.29 through Instacart cost $4.99 in store with a QFC card; the Raisin Bran that was $6.09 on Instacart cost $3.69 with a card in the store, and so on.

When we told Instacart about our results, the company explained that it’s “actively working” on eliminating the difference between in-store and online pricing. The company says its online prices already match the in-store prices at many retailers, such as Whole Foods. Instacart notes that consumers are able to shop across retailers in its marketplace to find the best prices.

And the company points out that its personal shoppers — the people who buy and deliver groceries — bring a much higher level of service to the process. They’re trained by the company, for example, to hand-pick the best vegetables and fruits, serving as the customer’s proxy in the store.

That was definitely true in our experience. Our Instacart personal shopper was top-notch, picking out some pristine apples and texting with us as she was browsing through the store to make sure she was getting the items we needed — and letting us know about unavailable items that needed to be replaced with alternatives.

Actually, those product replacements are something to keep an eye on if you use Instacart. For example, our personal shopper let us know that she was replacing the Lundberg Farms California White Jasmine Rice (32 oz., $5.69) on our list with Royal Jasmine Rice, which turned out to cost $12.09 from Instacart — more than twice as much. The text about the change didn’t mention the significant price difference. The Royal Jasmine Rice was $9.99 in store.

The chart above reflects our original shopping list, for purposes of direct comparison. Our actual Instacart total, including the replacements, was even more: $79.38 before taxes and tip.

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Overall, the price difference that we encountered on Instacart could cause some existing Amazon customers to consider sticking with Amazon Fresh, even at the new annual price.

At the very least, Instacart users need to be especially conscious about shopping across the different stores available through the service to make sure they’re getting the best prices. And when your personal shopper makes a replacement, be sure to ask about the price difference.

It’s an example of the complex economics of grocery delivery. Instacart’s Express service offers free delivery on orders above $35 for $99/year, significantly less than the $299/year Prime Fresh membership. But if they shop like we did, regular Instacart customers would easily spend the difference between the Instacart membership and an Amazon Prime membership over the course of a year.

Amazon Fresh changes, for the better?

As GeekWire reported last week, Amazon Fresh will start requiring customers in Seattle to pay for the $299/year Prime Fresh membership if they want to continue using the service after June of next year. If you consider that Prime Fresh includes the regular benefits of a $99/year Amazon Prime membership, the Prime Fresh subscription is essentially a $200/year premium for grocery delivery.

IMG_8251 (1)This is similar to how Amazon offers Prime Fresh in newer markets, such as Los Angeles and New York, but it’s causing some sticker shock for people in Seattle, who have served as the test market for the service since 2007.

However, along with the shift to the subscription program, Amazon is promising “reduced prices on thousands of Amazon Fresh items.” And that certainly seems true based on the results of our test.

photo 2 (2)In addition to the price comparison across services, I went back to some of my old Amazon Fresh orders from the past two years and compared those prices to the current list prices on Amazon Fresh, and noticed some significant savings in some cases. For example, a 46 oz. bottle of Tree Top Organic Apple Juice that cost $3.19 on Amazon Fresh in August 2013 now costs a full dollar less: $2.19.

Another big change is a new threshold for free delivery. Previously, Amazon Fresh customers in Seattle needed to maintain “Big Radish” status — ordering a certain volume over time — to receive a lower minimum order threshold for free deliveries. Under the new model in Seattle, all orders over $50 will be delivered for free, eliminating the Big Radish program.

In fact, when we made our Amazon Fresh order on Sunday as part of our test, we weren’t even able to check out until we had at least $50 in our cart. In other words, it’s not just that you now get free delivery on orders of more than $50. Based on what we experienced, you now need to order at least $50, and all delivery is free. (If anyone else has experienced something different this week on Amazon Fresh, please let us know.)

The delivery threshold in other Amazon Fresh markets is $35 per order. The company declined to tell us if the threshold will change in Seattle when the Prime Fresh requirement kicks in next year.

Ordering and Delivery Experience

Hey, what about Safeway? As detailed above, the supermarket’s online prices came in slightly higher than Amazon’s prices, and significantly lower than Instacart’s prices in our test. However, the old-school Safeway.com online ordering experience leaves a lot to be desired, requiring users to manually click to view the cart after adding items, for example.

Both Instacart and Amazon have much more modern and interactive online interfaces, automatically updating and displaying the shopping cart as you go along. (We didn’t test mobile apps as part of this experiment, but our experience with both the Instacart and Amazon Fresh apps has been positive, and Safeway has an app for Android and iPhone, as well.)

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In another way, however, Safeway stood out. We submitted our original order on Safeway at 9:41 p.m. on Sunday, and then decided to see if we could add an extra item, a four-pack of Gillette Simply Venus Disposable Razors for $6.49, after we submitted our order. It was relatively easy to do in the Safeway.com interface, and Safeway confirmed our revision at 10:19 p.m. via email, without any hassle.

Amazon Fresh offers a similar feature, but when we tried to make the same addition on Sunday night — prior to making the change with Safeway — the Amazon service said we were too late. Instacart offers the ability to change a submitted order, as well, but we decided not to make the addition because the same razors would have cost $10.89 through the Instacart service.

photo 5In terms of the actual delivery experience, however, Instacart was the clear winner. We would have been able to have our items delivered on Sunday night, but we opted instead for a delivery Windows from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Our personal shopper texted us to let us know she was on her way, showing up right at 10 a.m. She hand-delivered the items in a nice fabric shopping bag, stopping for a short time to chat at our door. Unattended delivery is available through Instacart, she explained, as long as the order doesn’t contain alcohol, which requires age verification.

By the time we ordered Amazon Fresh, there were no unattended delivery windows available for Monday morning, so we opted for delivery in a window from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The hurried but pleasant Amazon Fresh driver showed up around 3:30 p.m., delivering the items in an insulated Amazon Fresh bag and a giant frozen-foods bin that held our ice cream.

This bin has always been a minor annoyance as part of the Amazon Fresh service, because it can be hard to find someplace to stash the bin until your next order. Amazon does offer pickup service for bags and bins, but that can be a hassle to remember to schedule.

(Update: This pickup option is no longer available in the Amazon Fresh interface, but you can send a message to Amazon Fresh customer service to have your bags and bins picked up. Thanks to GeekWire reader Ryan for pointing this out in the comments below.)

Which leads us to Safeway. We were able to get a delivery window of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, and the driver showed up right around noon.

After bringing the plain brown bags to our door, the driver informed us that they were actually out of the half-gallon of milk that we ordered, so he simply hadn’t delivered it. Next time order the gallon, he recommended, explaining that they usually have those in stock.

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Our three-page Safeway receipt, left behind by the driver.

Why hadn’t they picked a different brand of milk, or contacted us about the change in advance? He didn’t say, but he left us with a mammoth printed receipt — spanning three 8.5×11 sheets of paper — detailing our order with far more complexity than necessary. (Reading through it, I’m pretty sure we weren’t charged for the undelivered milk.)

A personal shopper this guy was not!

Safeway offered free delivery on our first order. Normally, delivery rates are $9.95 on orders of $150 or more and $12.95 on orders of less than $150. The grocery chain does not offer free delivery thresholds or annual subscriptions like Amazon Fresh and Instacart do.

Conclusion

In the end, the actual quality of the food that we received was very similar across the three services. We kept the apples, pork and cucumbers in the refrigerator separate, to be able to compare the quality, but in fact there was minimal difference. The vegetables and fruit were high-quality, and the meat was fresh.

So which service should you use? As we’ve shown, that decision isn’t as simple as it might have seemed. Ultimately it comes down to how much you’re willing to pay for the convenience, your ability to spend time comparing prices across Instacart stores, whether you order enough groceries online to justify an annual subscription, and the quality of experience you want to have.

And most significantly, that $299/year Amazon Fresh subscription might not be as onerous as it initially seemed.

Lastly, we would have loved to have included Google Shopping Express in this experiment, but it’s not available in the Seattle region yet. If there’s interest in more comparisons along these lines, we’re talking about the possibility of repeating the test in the Bay Area, as well.

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