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Cut the Cost of Online Groceries

Don’t pay more than you have to for convenience

Online grocery shopping
BEN MOUNSEY-WOOD

Grocery delivery services are super convenient and easy to use. You can do your shopping in minutes and leave the heavy lifting to someone else. The catch: You may have to pay an extra 25 to 35 percent to skip that trip to the supermarket, potentially adding hundreds of dollars a year to your already rising food bills.

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The extra costs may include service charges, tips for delivery people, markups on individual items, as well as other fees, explains Phil Lempert, a consumer trend watcher who bills himself as the SupermarketGuru. Not all these extra costs are disclosed in detail. So, for example, you might not know that a box of Cheerios is priced higher online than it is in the store.

For many people, the benefits outweigh the extra costs and other downsides, such as losing the chance to pick out the best-looking produce. Before the pandemic, less than 2 percent of grocery spending came from online orders; in March, it was 14 percent, according to the research firm Brick Meets Click.

To cut your bill, or at least keep it from getting out of hand, start by understanding the different available services.

One option is to visit your local super­market’s website to see if it offers deliveries. Most big chains and some independents have online ordering, usually for a per-delivery fee.

A second option is to sign up for unlimited free deliveries from a single retailer through a membership program such as Amazon Prime ($139 per year for fast, free delivery of nonperishables and, where available through Amazon Fresh, same-day delivery of grocery orders) or Walmart+ ($98 per year for same-day delivery).

A third choice is to use a service that delivers from multiple stores. With these services, such as FreshDirect, Instacart or Shipt, you either pay a per-delivery fee or sign up for an unlimited-delivery program. DoorDash and Uber Eats, both of which started out as meal-delivery services, now also offer grocery delivery.

Whichever way you go, scan the fine print for fees and order minimums. For example, Shipt charges $99 annually for unlimited deliveries of at least $35—but may also charge an extra $7 for an order with alcohol.

And store markups could be substantial. For example, the Ramsey Solutions website found that a 10-pound box of Quaker Oats oatmeal cost $9 for in-store shoppers at Costco, but was closer to $11 for customers who ordered it for same-day delivery. Walmart, on the other hand, charges the same prices whether you shop in person or use Walmart+.

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So which grocery delivery service do you choose?

That depends, in part, on where you like to shop and what’s available in your area. If you want to stick with your local grocery store, start by checking its website. If you live near a Walmart, signing up for Walmart+ can get you free delivery with minimum orders of $35. If you’re an Amazon Prime member and you live near an Amazon Fresh, you can also get free delivery with a minimum purchase; Whole Foods charges a service fee. Or you might decide to go with a third-party service that works with a wide variety of retailers, including liquor stores and drugstores.

Some other ways to save when you are buying groceries online

Opt for pickup. Some stores let you order online and pick up at the store. This saves you time (your bags will be packed and ready to go), the delivery fee and maybe a tip.

Get loyalty rewards. Some supermarkets don’t let you use your loyalty card with online orders. So if you have a choice, opt for stores that do, such as Albertsons and Kroger.

Follow good in-store habits. Making a list before shopping can reduce impulse purchases. Check for sales and cheaper brands, and adjust your list accordingly.

Score introductory discounts. Fresh-Direct, for example, was advertising $50 off your first order of $99 in April. Take advantage of multiple deals while you try out various services to see which works best for you.

Avoid pricey substitutes. If items you order are out of stock, stores sometimes substitute costlier alternatives, which raises your bill. Lempert asks to be contacted to approve any replacements. A store recently subbed an expensive pork roast for a lower-cost cut a friend of mine ordered, without her OK. If something like this happens to you, complain and ask for a credit on your next order.

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