I’m a worker in the gig economy. With each new job, I play a game. I ask myself, “will this be a job in the future?” The future, according to game rules, is anything twenty to thirty years from the present day. Put another way, “will robots do this job when I’m old?” Last summer I began shopping and delivering groceries for Instacart.
Instacart is one of those services involving apps and smartphones. The customer orders avocados and fizzy water. They add instructions if necessary, and then track the order's progress. All this from their phone. No need to find a babysitter or haul a brood of screaming toddlers to a busy market. The algorithm lets them stay at home.
The shopper sits in their car, phone out and waits to receive a batch. (We call orders “batches” in the biz). They cruise to the store of the customer's choosing. They shop, scanning each item to confirm it’s exactly what the customer’s chosen. At checkout, they swipe an Instacart credit card. Then they make the delivery. The shopper gets paid by direct deposit each Wednesday. The pay is based on hours determined and managed by the shoppers themselves. They never speak to a supervisor. The algorithm is their boss.
The customer pays the phone. The phone pays the shopper. Nice work if you can get it, and you can totally get it.
So, will working for Instacart be a job in the future? No. Robots will do this job.
My method is simple. I study the top human performers in said profession. If the number one workers are those who perform most like machines, it stands to reason that a robot would do the job better. Look around your office. If Ted and Marsha are the best, and Ted and Marsha are described as “freaking machines,” then Ted and Marsha will be replaced by machines, and you’ll be out of work too.
Instacart rates its workers based on customer experience, shopping speed, and batch acceptance. Batch acceptance refers to the shopper's willingness to shop the order. Factors for turning down a batch include potential payment, distance, delivery location, and size of the order. If your acceptance rate drops below 80%, you lose opportunities for bonuses or hourly minimums. It’s sometimes worth letting your rate drop to bypass delivering to the Bank of America building downtown. Their parking is a nightmare.
I have a high customer rating and my speed rating is slightly above average. I make about $16 an hour. My average speed per item is 98 sec. In North Texas, the top performers average 58 sec. That’s fast. Too fast to ensure that Clara T. in Richardson gets the best possible peach. But not too fast if you want to service twice as many customers than a wannabe novelist who takes a minute and a half to find the perfect peach.
I’ve seen some of these top shoppers in action. They’re awesome. They move faster, are more focused, and better organized than me. Their pay reflects that. The ones I’ve talked to average $20 an hour. When I need to improve my metrics, these are the shoppers I emulate. Go fast. Be systematic. Don’t listen to Man’s Search for Meaning on Audible while you shop.
But as tech advances, and customers become more comfortable with robots, machine shoppers will supplant the human ones. It makes sense. Fast, durable, and undiscerning machines trump human error, physical limitations, and personal biases. They will work at a consistent clip, lift without tiring, and deliver to locations that some human shoppers might avoid. There is, of course, growing concern that AI comes with its own bias. That’s something to consider. But, we know human bias, and that’s not something you can recalculate in the human shopper.
The Human Element
Yet, I must say, its the human elements of the job that are most rewarding for me. The shopping, at its best, produces a state of Flow. Your brain clears. Your troubles evaporate. All that remains is the task at hand.
The job creates a wonderful sense of empathy. You pilot from the customer’s POV. The order tells you a story. “This guy is brand loyal.” “She’s trying to lose weight.” The story guides the shopping.
Part of the gig is making substitutions when an item is out-of-stock. As you might expect, this happens all the time. Sometimes a customer provides guidance, but usually, it’s your call. Then you’re in their POV. This can be impersonal. “Daniel P. might prefer the cage-free brown eggs since the large Grade A Kroger brand eggs are missing. After all, Daniel is an animal lover. He bought all that cat food.” But it can get intimate. It’s no small task making substitutions for things like tampons, baby wipes, or adult diapers. The options are many, but the customer’s needs are specific. You have to factor fit, taste, comfort, brand, etc. This might mean little when it comes to eggs, but everything when it comes to the comfort and hygiene of a baby. Yes, there’s an option for the customer to offer their own substitutions. But not all customers find that option. Yes, you can text with the customer. But not all are available to chat. It falls on the shopper to make this choice.
I find meaning in this. Small meaning, maybe, and undoubtedly less meaningful work than, say, being a hospice nurse, or, I don’t know, growing the actual food. But it’s meaningful, nonetheless. And finding meaning will always factor into the work humans do.
Heck, I even like the stores. Sure, some are poorly stocked with narrow aisles and lousy parking. And no, you should never use their restrooms. But they can also be warm and folksy environments. People smile at one another. They make room for each other. The tall help the short with high-up items. The wise instruct the lost. All shoppers united by a common task - to find that that thing they’re looking for. They can be diverse environments. An alien species looking to study us would do well to swing by the Kroger on Capitol and Central on a Saturday morning. They’d find all manner of humanity. Some shoppers are motivated by cost, others by health concerns. Many are concerned with both. But all walk the aisles with eyes wide open, awake and alert, searching for that thing they're looking for. This unified search, everyone with game mode turned on, creates a sense of cooperation. Out in the parking lots there’s plenty of tension. Parking lots are football fields, built for violence and competition. But in the grocery store, at least, we’re all in this together.
Delivering kind of sucks. It’s my least favorite part of the job. It’s easier to break into Apartment complexes than to enter with a gate code. John McLain’s time in Nakatomi Tower was a cake walk compared to pushing a delivery cart through most office buildings. Often no one is meaner to a person doing their job, than a person doing their job. But it can also be rewarding. For the most part, this whole order-groceries-on-your-phone-and-some-nice-person-will-bring-it-to-your-door thing is pretty novel for people. This might not be true for every region. New Yorkers have had their groceries delivered since colonial times. But it’s true in North Texas. Most of my customers greet me with a sense of awe.
And then there’s the gratitude.
I recently shopped an order that consisted of three cases of bottled water - you get a “heavy item” bump for this - and two 2 liter bottles of Kroger brand distilled water. That was it, just a whole bunch of water. The customer lived in the apartment complex across from Krogers. It took five minutes to shop the order, and three minutes to make the delivery. A woman answered the door with a tube in her nose. The tube connected to an oxygen tank sitting on wheels at her feet. She balanced her weight on the kitchen counter as I made the delivery. She looked exhausted. It was 11am. She thanked me and said the service was a God-send because she was on her “last legs.”
Another time, I shopped a large order, over fifty items. This was a big payday for me. During communication with the customer, it became clear the order was for her aging mother. The elderly woman lived in a small house. The house looked like it had once been nice, but now the yard was littered with broken items. The rickety wooden porch was also filled with junk. I almost tripped over a bag of coal that seemed to have been standing a post by the front door since the Carter administration. An elderly woman answered the door in a nightgown. (Many people answer the door in robes. The elderly are not alone in this practice. Indeed an astonishing amount of bathrobe wearing people have their groceries delivered.) The woman asked if I could load the items up in the kitchen for her. We’re not allowed to do that, enter the homes. But she was frail, and I couldn’t figure how she'd manage it on her own. She said she was on cloud nine. Her daughter had to order for her because she’d lost her debit card. And she’d run out of cash so she couldn’t hire a cab to take her to the store. She couldn’t drive herself, and she felt trapped in the house without food. This order would last her the two weeks before her daughter could make a trip up from Houston to see her. She could wait till then without worrying about where she’d get her food.
I don’t imagine myself to be a hero delivery guy. I’m a mercenary shopper looking to get paid and hoping to avoid trouble. But these little flecks of gratitude are lovely rewards. And it means something to the customers as well. I believe that. Being able to thank someone can be a bright spot in a grey day or a calm moment in a hectic schedule.
In a past life, I used to avoid people as best I could. If a friendship didn’t seem possible or likely, I generally kept my distance. I worked in an office, and whenever I could, I took my work off campus. People are messy and loud and loaded with drama. Often with colleagues, I felt like they wanted something from me. Acknowledgment of their contributions or something. And when I tried to meet that need, it would only complicate things. I could never find the right balance of gratitude and grace. And they couldn’t find it with me either. It seems I craved the same acknowledgement.
Maybe delivering groceries is different because there’s an element of service to it. In the office, it was all about the team building a big project together. There were hierarchies, and personal relationships, and politics, and, in the end, even if what the team made was great, individuals left feeling unappreciated. With shopping, it’s simple. Someone needs groceries, it’s inconvenient or impossible for them to get it themselves, so I go get it. “Here they are.” “Wow, thanks!”
Not everyone can step away from their lives long enough to spend an hour in the store. Not everyone can lift the items, or navigate the aisles, or even drive themselves. I also realize, of course, that not everyone can afford the Instacart service fee. But those who use it enjoy the service, and the shopper is often the one who gets the thanks. It’s nice. It’s simple.
The time will come when robots replace we mortal shoppers. Shoot, the whole notion of how and where we get our food will likely change. For that matter, the concept of “food” will evolve past recognition. But for the time being, I’m enjoying the human aspects of working for an algorithm.
I like the people.