Instacart Green: An Instacart Case Study

How might we create a grocery delivery experience that caters to the green consumer?

DISCLAIMER: I am not your typical designer. And no, I’m not saying that I’m special by any means, I’m just different. I’m not a wizard at interaction or visual design, but I am a future-focused UX generalist and someone who understands the business case of design choices. I am a strong UX writer and designer, and a very strategic product thinker. I bring a unique blend of business, environmental sustainability, and technical knowledge to the table, allowing me to approach problems with a unique perspective. This project, for example, is addressing an underserved user group that Instacart will inevitably have to serve in the coming years unless it wishes to lose customers to its competitors. My personal lens allows me to apply my knowledge of how we can make the business case for sustainability to the world of design, creating a more thoughtful, sustainable, and future-proof solution. Please keep this in mind as you read this piece. Cheers, and enjoy the case study!

Intro

As part of the KPCB Fellowship application, I was tasked with the following challenge:

Redesign a feature of a Kleiner Perkins company’s product. You are free to focus on any disciplinary area that you are strongest with: Visual Design, Interaction Design, User Experience, and/or User Interface Design.

I decided to pick Instacart’s mobile app.

As someone that cares about the environment, I am always looking for opportunities to reduce my carbon footprint when it comes to food and groceries. I always shop with reusable canvas bags, choose local and sustainable foods and cleaning products, and usually bike or take the bus to get to the store.

And I’m not alone.

In 2018, Nielsen found that “nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.”

“The generational divide in sustainability is fueled by technology. We’ve found that sustainable shoppers in the U.S. are 67% more likely to be digitally engaged, which means they are used to having the products and knowledge they want right at their fingertips. With their devices playing a significant role in their purchase decisions, a simple and frictionless shopping experience between on and offline is critical.”

-Sarah Schmansky, VP Fresh/H&W Growth & Strategy, Nielsen.

Nielsen also found that 83% of millennials (defined as ages 21–34) said: “it is extremely or very important for me that companies implement programs to improve the environment.”

Source: The Conference Board® Global Consumer Confidence Survey conducted in collaboration with Nielsen Q2 2017

As for the growth of green products, the Harvard Business Review says products that had a sustainability claim on-pack accounted for 16.6% of the market in 2018, up from 14.3% in 2013, and delivered nearly $114 billion in sales, up 29% from 2013. Most important, products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not. In more than 90% of the CPG categories, sustainability-marketed products grew faster than their conventional counterparts.

Lastly, a Newcastle University study analyzing how we can lower the carbon footprint of customers’ supermarket baskets found that asking consumers to recall environmentally friendly behavior and presenting them with a carbon tax yielded similar results. Each led to a reduction of approximately 2.5–3.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide per shopping trip. (This amount of emissions equates to roughly 6–8 miles driven in an average passenger vehicle.)This is important because it shows that we don’t need formal regulation in place to motivate consumers to make more climate-conscious choices.

With all of this in mind, I set out to learn more about Instacart, the grocery delivery industry, and the users in question.

Table of contents

  1. Research
  2. Identifying opportunities for improvement
  3. Solutions
  4. Looking forward

Research

Instacart 101

Founded in 2012, Instacart is a three-sided marketplace that operates in the U.S. and Canada. According to TechCrunch, Instacart is available to 80% of U.S. households and 70% of Candian households through partnerships with national, regional, and local chains like Kroger, Safeway, Albertsons, Costco, and Walmart Canada. Instacart shoppers pick and deliver orders within the customer’s selected time frame — as soon as one hour or up to five days in advance.

The grocery delivery industry

Online grocery sales are estimated to grow to 20% of total grocery retail by 2025 and reach $100 billion in consumer sales, according to a study by the Food Marketing Institute conducted by Nielsen. This market is dominated by more prominent players like Amazon, Kroger, Target, and Walmart, accompanied by more niche players like Imperfect Foods, Thrive Market, and Good Eggs. Here are some highlights about some of Instacart’s main competitors:

Amazon is the market leader for online grocery delivery, boasting offerings through its Prime Pantry (U.S., Europe, and Japan) and AmazonFresh (regional) programs. Amazon’s 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods created better access to quality meats and produce.

Kroger offers delivery from its U.S. stores in as little as an hour.

Target allows for delivery through Shipt, the online grocery delivery platform it acquired in 2017. By 2019, the company says Shipt will offer same-day delivery of “all major product categories.”

Walmart offers free, same-day delivery in hundreds of U.S. cities through its Walmart Grocery program.

Imperfect Foods delivers “ugly,” imperfect, or surplus grocery items to many U.S. cities that help reduce food waste for prices up to 30% less than national supermarket chains.

Thrive Market is an online, membership-based market offering high quality, healthy, and sustainable products. Many of their products boast environmental value labels such as “compostable,” “sustainably farmed,” and “recycled packaging.”

Good Eggs is a grocery delivery service that offers local, freshly-picked produce and meal kits to the Bay Area, shipped in sustainable and reusable packaging.

Remembering our users

Before coming up with solutions, it is essential to remember who we are designing for. While this redesign is targeting green consumers, it is important that not all green consumers are the same. I like to use to Rolf Wüstenhagen’s light green-dark green model to describe the spectrum of green consumers.

Dark green consumers prioritize green products, while light greens often cite higher prices as a barrier to purchase. Others fall in between.

Dark greens value environmental aspects of products more than any other attribute, express a high willingness to pay a premium, are inclined to attach high importance to energy independence for their homes, and stress the importance of generating supplies locally. Dark greens also are more likely to think about applying what he calls “deep green” solutions, like orienting their next building to the south to maximize the use of passive solar energy.

Light greens, on the other hand, perceive a trade-off between environmental aspects and other product attributes — notably price. They express a more limited willingness to pay for environmental features, and they often underline the importance of convenience, comfort and low maintenance. The study also found that light greens are more risk averse and more moved by reliability, making them a challenging market for adoption of new technologies.

With all of this research under my belt, I came up with a few Instacart-specific questions that might help guide my analysis.

Questions to consider

  • What is the age breakdown of customers that order groceries via Instacart?
  • What proportion of Instacart customers would fall into the light green consumer bucket? Dark green?
  • What proportion of Instacart shoppers makes deliveries with electric vehicles? Electric scooters? Bikes?
  • How do people usually find products, through search or by browsing categories and similar products?
  • What is the average order size? Dollar value?
  • How frequently does the average customer order on Instacart?

Identifying opportunities for improvement

Opportunity 1 | Categories

One of the big things that are lost in porting a physical store to an app is the ability to browse an aisle. Many traditional grocery stores feature an organic aisle or some delineation of “healthier” products. While healthy doesn’t necessarily equate to green in this instance, the concept behind highlighting these types of goods helps consumers find what they’re looking for, as well as discover new products.

Opportunity 2 | Product info page

Currently, each product’s detail page features information such as the nutrition facts and a few other classifications like “Vegan.” While this is useful information, these pages have the potential to show a lot more data and allow the customer to make a decision quickly. Users could learn what types of goods are sustainably and/or locally sourced and what contributes the most to their carbon footprint.

Opportunity 3 | Comparison

At the moment, there is no tool for users to compare products on the Instacart mobile app. For light green consumers, there is a need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of purchasing more sustainable options, especially the typical tradeoffs with price.

Opportunity 4 | Cart emissions

One of the added benefits of shopping online for groceries, as opposed to in-person, is that you can see the total cost of your cart increase as you add items. This ability to track attributes about your cart also opens up the opportunity to measure the carbon footprint of your purchases as you shop on Instacart.

Opportunity 5 | Delivery options

Currently, the Instacart mobile app allows users to select a time window in which they would like their groceries delivered. While this choice is nice, it makes me think, what other options could users have surrounding delivery? In larger cities, some Instacart deliveries are made on bikes or scooters, which emit significantly less carbon than the standard combustion engine car. Could users have the option to select a greener mode of delivery? What about the option to delay the delivery time to wait for other customers in the area to save on fuel costs? What about the option to purchase carbon offsets?

Opportunity 6 | Checkout

Building on the opportunity to track the emissions of the cart, there is also potential to show their progress as a green consumer when it comes to the checkout screen. Lots of grocery stores print your savings on the receipt with the final total, which makes me wonder if the checkout screen could be another place to implement some green learnings to shape behavior.

Solutions

Before we get into the solutions, I want to clarify a big assumption I made while designing Instacart Green. All of my work assumes that carbon emission data are available for every product offered through Instacart. While this is a bit of stretch today, technology is developing that will allow suppliers and retailers to precisely monitor the journeys all of the products that end up on the shelves. This will eventually enable complete transparency on emissions data. (Check out this example of how Walmart is using blockchain technology for supply chain transparency.)

So with this in mind, let’s dive into Instacart Green.

Instacart Green is a suite of opt-in sustainability features to enhance the Instacart experience for the green consumer. The features follow the user throughout their journey, from search to checkout, allowing them to have a better understanding of the products they’re purchasing and their environmental impact. These features will allow Instacart to be ahead of the curve and create a competitive advantage over rivals that currently do not offer tools or features for the green consumer.

Solution 1 | Introducing green categories

Examples of new, green product categories

Given that Instacart’s mobile app offers both search and categories as methods of finding products, it is vital to give customers the opportunity to discover green products that are new to them (light green consumers) and allow customers to narrow their shopping to solely sustainable options (dark green consumers). This solution caters to both user groups and is a simple entry point into the rest of the suite of green features.

Solution 2 | Highlighting carbon footprint

A non-green product (left) and a green product (right) with the new sustainability information

Product details page

Once the customer finds a product they’re interested in, they have to decide whether they want to add it to their cart. Keeping this quick decision-making in mind, I decided to frontload relevant information. Each product will display its carbon footprint (in kilograms) and any other green attributes in the form of tags. (See above right.) They can also tap on the tags to browse more products with that same tag. Previously any information like whether a product was vegan or organic (if not in the name) was buried beneath the fold, making it hard for consumers to find crucial information.

Track your cart’s emissions and compare it to the average!

Cart

On top of seeing item specific data, the customer can also see the cumulative emissions total relative to the average cart from the same retailer. At first, I presented the total as kilograms of CO2, but after talking with some of my friends in my Sustainable Strategy class, I realized that even some dark green consumers don’t have the best understanding of what a kilogram of carbon emissions looks like. As a UX writer, I felt that this statistic needed more explanation, so when the user taps the green C02 button, it expands into a modal giving more context on the CO2 statistic.

Solution 3 | Offering greener delivery options

While product choices are the most significant way a customer can lower their carbon footprint, delivery logistics also present another way for green consumers to decrease their impact.

Two new ways to save on emissions from transportation

Delaying orders

While Instacart aims to piggyback on the on-demand nature of present-day society, there are some environmental advantages consumers can gain if they slow down the delivery process. There are also financial incentives for all parties. First, by delaying an order to a later date, it gives Instacart an increased chance of allowing shoppers to pick multiple orders headed to the same area. This benefits shoppers, as they spend less time picking multiple orders and save money on gas (resulting in fewer carbon emissions from transport.) Instacart benefits from shoppers having more time to work for the platform as they can process more orders. Thus, ideally, Instacart can pass some of the increased revenue in the form of savings to consumers.

Greener delivery methods

If a customer is in a bigger city, there may also be potential for delivery via lower-impact vehicles like bikes. Bike courier wages may be lower (they can’t carry as many groceries as shoppers with cars), and thus again Instacart can offer the customer a slight discount AND provide them a new way to save on emissions. Electric vehicles (EVs) are another option, though the next-to-zero emissions from an Instacart EV delivery would likely have to be exchanged with a slight delivery surcharge due to the limited supply of EVs.

Solution 4 | Showing impact at checkout

Two totals: monetary cost and environmental cost

The last relevant part of the customer journey is the checkout step, where the user sees their order total and payment details. This is a prime spot to remind the customer of their emissions total as well. I think that it is important to reinforce that in addition to the order total that is being charged to the customer’s card, there is also the invisible total of what they are costing the planet. I believe that placing these two in close proximity will help strengthen consumers’ conceptual models of how grocery shopping ties into their carbon footprint. Seeing that the delivery method is now included, a section of the page shows the overall total as well as prompts the user to browse more details about their emissions if they wish. Ideally, “Show more details” would offer an explanation that would help users quantify a kilogram of emissions (such as through comparing it to gallons of gas or miles driven in a car) as well as historical performance data about the user’s carbon footprint on Instacart.

Looking forward

Measuring success

To evaluate the success of this opt-in suite of features, I would want to measure a few things:

  • Opt-ins and retention/churn
  • Clicks on the sustainable categories
  • Click-through rate on products in the “Green Alternatives” section of non-green product pages
  • Proportion of users that choose to delay their delivery (compared to a control set of users who aren’t using Instacart Green)
  • Proportion of users that select a green delivery method (especially to assess whether users would pay a premium for EVs)
  • Trend of total carbon emissions over time from users that opted-in (compared to a control set of users who aren’t using Instacart Green)

If I had more time…

Example of a comparison of a product and one of its green alternatives

Comparison tool

One thing that the Instacart mobile app doesn’t currently offer is a tool to compare products. Beyond price (total and unit)and nutrition, I’m not sure what the normal (non-green) consumer would want to compare. However, if I had more time and was able to interview more users of the app, I would explore creating a general comparison tool with added variables for the green consumer.

Carbon footprint analytics and data visualization

Another key part of nudging users into more green behaviors or helping them understand their progress is providing digestible performance data. If I had more time, I would want to better understand how people would want to measure their carbon footprint. Would they want to compare themselves to the average? What about versus their own past footprint? This is a much larger problem in the world of sustainability that I would like to investigate further.

Thanks for reading!

UX Designer/Writer | Senior at the University of Michigan | Designing for a more sustainable future