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Instacart desperately needed them not long ago. Now some workers say they are struggling to get orders

<i>Charles Krupa/AP</i><br/>An Instacart worker leaves groceries at the gate of a home in New Hampshire in April 2020.
Charles Krupa/AP
An Instacart worker leaves groceries at the gate of a home in New Hampshire in April 2020.

By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business

In the early days of the pandemic, as households around the country went into lockdown, shoppers for Instacart had a seemingly limitless amount of grocery orders to fulfill. Their earnings were, at times, bolstered significantly by generous tips in recognition of the personal health risk workers were taking.

But in recent weeks, some shoppers in markets across the country said they have gone hours or even days at a time without seeing many — or any — “batches,” which can consist of one or a few orders from different customers, according to social media posts and conversations with five shoppers, each of whom joined the platform during the pandemic. The workers, who spoke with CNN Business on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, are now grappling with the sudden drop in orders surfaced to them and struggling to understand the reasons behind it without more information from the company.

“You’re basically just wasting your time,” said one worker, who shops in Atlanta. He said he recently sat for two hours outside the two major grocery stores he typically shops near his home without seeing a single order.

The shoppers CNN Business spoke to said they believed the timing of the slowdown corresponded with a recent company app update. Instacart notified workers late last month that it was rolling out a change over “the next few weeks” so that “batches you see will be closer to your location” and warned that this “will result in you seeing less batches in the list view,” according to an email viewed by CNN Business. The company said in the email that the goal of the change is to help shoppers “choose batches that are more relevant to you without having to travel too far for a batch.”

But the underlying cause appears to be more fundamental: a shift in demand. An Instacart spokesperson told CNN Business there isn’t a technical issue but rather the marketplace is stabilizing following what the company said was the busiest holiday season in its history atop a surge in Covid cases from the Omicron variant, which is now easing in the United States.

“As a marketplace, the number of shoppers and customer demand on our platform naturally rebalances over time. When demand peaks and earnings opportunities are plentiful, new shoppers onboard at higher rates and existing shoppers spend more time fulfilling orders,” Instacart said in a statement for this story. “As customer demand normalizes, the marketplace will stabilize as supply and demand reach a new equilibrium — we expect to see this happen in the coming weeks.”

Instacart said orders grew 30% last year from the year prior, and that demand remains high. The company said as order volume settles to more typical levels but the number of active shoppers remains steady, shoppers may see fewer batches overall — for now.

The sharp reversal in orders for some shoppers, and the uncertainty around what’s causing it, highlights the tenuous relationship between gig workers and the platforms many turned to during the pandemic to make ends meet. At the start of the health crisis, Instacart was so overwhelmed with demand that customers had to reserve spots days ahead of time and the company announced plans to add a staggering 550,000 new workers in a matter of months to keep up.

The company said it has more than 600,000 active shoppers across North America, up from the more than 500,000 active shoppers it said it had in August 2020. For Instacart, there’s reason to keep the number of active shoppers on its platform high. “While the long term trend is consistent growth across the marketplace, we also must be able to respond to demand spikes,” the company’s statement continued.

But with the pandemic once again easing in much of the United States, workers now worry the pendulum has swung in the other direction. And they are more aware than ever that they have little control over which jobs, if any, the algorithm surfaces to them, especially if demand tapers off. Moreover, some workers are growing increasingly discouraged by what they view as Instacart’s lack of transparency on the matter.

“Never have I had several days of seeing a blank screen with no shops until this latest update and over-hiring of new shoppers,” said an Olympia, Washington-based worker who has treated shopping for Instacart as a full-time job since late 2020.

Workers said they contacted customer support in recent weeks, believing the sudden lack of batches to be some sort of glitch. Some agents offered an explanation that workers said the company hadn’t messaged directly: “Your area currently has more available shoppers than orders needing to be shopped,” according to a message an agent sent to a shopper in New York City, viewed by CNN Business. “I’m sorry you aren’t receiving as many batches as you’d like. I know this is a frustrating situation,” the agent continued, pointing them to a “best times to shop feature” in the app that shows the highest volume of orders the prior week in the area.

Instacart, whose valuation doubled twice during the pandemic to $39 billion at its most recent fundraising round, is privately-held and therefore provides fewer public updates on its business. But its on-demand peers have reported rebounds in worker supply. On its earnings call this month, for example, DoorDash’s chief financial officer told analysts that “we find ourselves well supplied,” when it comes to its workers, called “Dashers.” The executive added that DoorDash expects to be “well supplied in 2022.”

Instacart said it onboarded new shoppers in recent months to meet its seasonal needs. The company said a number of factors go into the prioritization of batches, including their rating, but it said the shopper’s proximity to a store is the primary factor. New shoppers are treated as if they have a 5-star rating for their first five batches, according to Instacart. The company said it does, at times, institute wait lists for workers in regions in a bid to balance supply and demand. That said, the spokesperson said the company is still onboarding shoppers in a majority of places nationwide and declined to share more details on which regions it has wait lists for workers.

Some workers who jumped to Instacart for a financial lifeline during the pandemic are now weighing their next moves.

A New York City Instacart worker told CNN Business he recently quit his job as a parking valet earlier this year to do Instacart full time because the money had been good, but he’s now reevaluating that decision. He said he recently signed up to work for Grubhub to help supplement his income.

Others are now shifting back to traditional service jobs. The Atlanta-based worker said he’s going to soon begin a job as a server. “It’s going to be more steady. I can collect an hourly check without having to worry as much,” he said.

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