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Feb 2021 Update: Comparing online grocery delivery services in Canada

A full year has now passed since the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in Canada, and some of the challenges from the early days of lockdown still exist. As we all patiently await our vaccine, the “second wave” has led provincial governments to enact new restrictions. Gatherings are limited, restaurants are limited to take-out only, shopping hours are reduced for essential retail, and lines are forming as essential stores are asked to limit their capacity.

Despite all of this, people are getting used to their socially distanced lifestyles. Grocery shopping no longer feels like an extreme sport, and key items like toilet paper and yeast are back on store shelves.

Likewise, the kinks have been worked out of shopping for groceries online. Items are in stock, delivery and pickup are available with reasonable lead times, and the cacophony of other problems are, by and large, gone.

Now that we’re officially done with crisis mode, how has the dust settled, and which grocers come out on top? Let’s take a look at your online grocery options in Canada.

For the purposes of this article, details on prices, availability and services offered are based on the locations closest to my home in the suburbs of Toronto (or, if no nearby location exists, my mom’s house in Victoria). This sample reflects just a fraction of the 2,500 supermarkets across the country, so your experience may be different.

Best overall online grocery delivery: Loblaws (includes NoFrills, Superstore, Zehrs, Fortinos and PC Express)

Galen Weston has gone on TV many times proclaiming President’s Choice, “worth switching supermarkets for.” Admittedly, I almost always choose PC brand products over big brand names. But what about shopping for groceries online?

Most of the 900 grocery stores run by Loblaws across Canada offer online ordering, although fulfillment varies by brand and location. If you want to pick up your groceries, the easiest way to order is using PC Express. You can use a web browser or the app to find the pickup locations closest to you and place an order. As I write this, the next available time slot at my home store is tomorrow at 9 pm and the selection doesn’t fully open up until four days from now. Pickup costs $3 on weekdays and $5 on weekends.

If you want to get your groceries delivered, the experience is a bit less seamless. In some areas (downtown Toronto is the only one I discovered) you can order delivery using PC Express. In other urban areas, you can order delivery from your closest store using Instacart. Elsewhere, delivery is said to be “coming soon.”

Time-based availability varies widely, too. A delivery order to downtown Toronto via PC express can’t be made until 3 days from now. An order placed in the suburbs via Instacart, however, can be delivered within the next 2 hours.

Similarly, the pricing will vary depending on which service you use. A delivery order placed through PC Express costs $9.95 for delivery,

Delivery via Instacart, however, is a bit more complicated. Delivery is $3.99, plus a 5% service fee, an optional tip to your delivery person (5% is recommended), and Instacart’s markup of approximately 10% on some, but not all, items. For a $50 grocery order, you’ll pay up to an extra $13.99 plus tax vs. doing your own shopping.

Loblaws and its related brands only accept MasterCard credit cards in-store but also accept Visa for pickup orders and American Express for delivery via Instacart, which is a nice feature.

  • Pickup fee: $3-$5 depending on the time of day
  • Current pickup timeline: 2-3 days
  • Delivery fee: $3.99 + 5% optional gratuity (Instacart) | $9.99 (PC Express)
  • Current delivery timeline: 2 hours (Instacart) | 3-4 days (PC Express)
  • Order with an app: Yes

Overall online grocery delivery – runner-up: Walmart

Walmart across Canada were retrofitted with grocery departments starting in 2006, and now the international mega-chain is a leading player in the grocery industry. Online ordering for pickup is available nationwide. Grocery delivery is available nationwide through Instacart, and through Walmart itself in some locations.

Pickup time slots are made available 8 days in advance and are currently available with about one day’s notice. Walmart doesn’t charge for pickup orders, except if the pickup location is somewhere other than a Walmart store.

Using the Walmart website, delivery is available with about two days’ notice for a fee of $7.97. Same-day delivery, where and when available, costs $12.97.

Using Instacart, delivery is available within roughly two hours for a delivery fee of $7.99, plus a $2.00 service fee and optional tip. At least at my closest store, the prices on Instacart appear to match the prices on the Walmart website.

  • Pickup fee: Free with $35 minimum order
  • Current pickup timeline: 1 day
  • Delivery fee: $7.99 + $2 service fee + optional gratuity (Instacart) | $7.97 – $12.97 (Walmart.ca)
  • Current delivery timeline: 2 hours (Instacart) | 2 days (Walmart.ca)
  • Order with an app: Yes

Fastest grocery delivery service: Cornershop

In a world dominated by startup companies that describe themselves as the “Uber of (name-a-thing)” the “Uber of groceries” is Cornershop. Ironically, Uber acquired Cornershop in late 2019.

The premise is quite simple. You use their app to order groceries online, pay a service fee, and they dispatch someone to pick them up and bring them to your home. You can also request items not found in the online catalogue, so your hankering for “something deep-fried from the ready-to-eat section that doesn’t look dried out” stands a chance of being fulfilled.

The company isn’t candid about where its services are and aren’t available, but in my area in Southern Ontario, Cornershop offers delivery from Walmart, Metro, Costco, and Longo’s, as well as some other non-grocery retailers.

Competing on speed, Cornershop can deliver from any one of these retailers in the next 90 minutes. But speed comes with a price. The delivery fee is $9.90 for orders under $40 and $6.90 for orders over $40. In addition to that, Cornershop adds a service fee of 10% (which, unlike Instacart, it’s at least candid about).

You can also add an optional gratuity for your shopper.

You can get free delivery and other incentives with Cornershop by taking advantage of special offers. For example, I was given two offers for free delivery for spending a certain amount of money on particular brand-name products. With a $99 annual subscription, you can get unlimited free delivery on orders of $40 or more.

Finally, unlike Instacart, which powers the “official” delivery services of many major grocers in Canada, Cornershop is available in some parts of Quebec making it a good option where available.

  • Pickup fee: Not available
  • Current pickup timeline: Not available
  • Delivery fee: $6.90-$9.90 OR $99 per year + 10% of order total
  • Current delivery timeline: About 90 minutes
  • Order with an app: Yes

Best online grocery delivery for non-perishable food items: Amazon / Whole Foods

You might go on Amazon to order everything else in your life, but what about groceries? Especially since the online behemoth purchased Whole Foods a few years back, you might expect to find a unique combination of great prices, service and quality.

That’s not the case just yet. There are only a handful of Whole Foods stores in Toronto and Vancouver, none of which offer online ordering. Your only option is to shop Whole Foods products on Amazon, and even then, you’re limited to non-perishables only. There are no vegetables to be found here.

However, if non-perishable food items are what you need, Amazon is a great place to look. You can get free delivery with an Amazon Prime membership and the guaranteed delivery time for food items is in the range of one day up to a week. In my experience, Amazon has been under-promising and over-delivering on timelines recently, so your items could show up sooner than expected.

The combination of great selection, ease of ordering and quick delivery with no membership required make Amazon your best source for delivery of items like cereal, canned goods, rice, beans, nuts, dried fruit, pasta and snacks.

  • Pickup fee: Not available.
  • Current pickup timeline: Not available
  • Delivery fee: Free over $35 OR with Prime membership
  • Current delivery timeline: 1-2 days
  • Order with an app: Yes

Grocery delivery for non-perishable food items runner-up: Costco

I have a love-hate relationship with Costco chronicled in my earlier ramblings about the Capital One Costco MasterCard.

Costco does not offer curbside pickup in Canada, but they’ve stepped up their delivery game in recent months.

For non-perishable foods and dry goods like toilet paper, you can order directly from the Costco website. This service is free with a minimum order of $75, but customers outside of urban centres may incur an additional shipping fee. The delivery window ranges from 2-10 days, and my test order fell right in the middle with estimated delivery in 6 days. My personal experience with Costco is that the “free” online delivery is built into the price and bumps up the average item by anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars.

To get your hands on milk, eggs, bread and produce, you no longer have to head to the warehouse thanks to Costco’s partnership with Instacart. Same-day delivery is available, and fees run $5.99 for delivery, plus a 5% service fee and optional gratuity. Instacart also adds a significant markup to the prices you’ll find in the warehouse. Details on the markup are not made clear, but they appear to raise the price of your Costco order by up to 25%.

A Costco membership isn’t required to order with Instacart, but you can enter your membership number to unlock lower pricing. The basic membership is $60 per year, which can be purchased online and used immediately.

  • Pickup fee: Not available
  • Current pickup timeline: Not available
  • Delivery fee: Free with $75 minimum order, membership required (Non-perishable products)| $5.99 + 5% + estimated 25% markup + optional gratuity (Instacart)
  • Current delivery timeline: 2-10 days (Non-perishable products) | Same-day (Instacart)
  • Order with an app: Yes

A good online grocer in Western Canada: Save-On-Foods

Grocery shoppers in Western Canada will be happy to know that most Save-On-Foods locations let you shop Darrell’s Deals online and choose to pick up your order or have it delivered. Save-On-Foods has recently revamped their online ordering system making the process much smoother.

If you want to pick up your groceries, you may be able to find time slots available for the same day if you get in early, but a 1-2 day wait is more likely.

There’s no fee to buy online and pick up at curbside.

Grocery delivery is available for a fee ranging from $4.95 – $9.95, depending on how flexible you are. For example, you can select a 7 am-2 pm window for $4.95, or pay extra to narrow it into a 9 am-11 am window. You can also redeem Save-On-More points to get free delivery. The nice thing about Save-On-Foods is that their fee structure is very simple. There are no hidden fees, additional service fees, or markup above what you would pay in the store.

Somewhat annoying is the requirement to register for an account and sign up for Save More Rewards before you can access their online shopping portal. But once you’re signed up, it’s easy to find what you need on the website or app.

  • Pickup fee: Free
  • Current pickup timeline: 1 day
  • Delivery fee: $4.95 – $9.95 or redeem 2,500 More Rewards points
  • Current delivery timeline: 1-2 days
  • Order with app: Yes

A good choice in Souther Ontario: Longo’s / Grocery Gateway

Toronto-area shoppers have been using Longo’s Grocery Gateway service to get their groceries delivered since before it was cool to have everything brought to your doorstep. If you like to pick up from the store, they offer a pick-up service at Longo’s locations as well.

The Grocery Gateway website is a bit confusing, and unlike most online grocers you can’t choose curbside pickup until you check out. Once you find the option, making the selection is easy enough and pickup windows are available for the next day. Pickup is free and the prices online are the same as what you’ll find in stores.

For delivery, same-day service is available in some areas for a fee of $14.95, although the next available time slot as I research this is a little over 24 hours from now. Next-day delivery is available everywhere for $9.99. A $1 “eco fee” is added to all orders, ostensibly to help pay for the company’s environmental initiatives.

  • Pickup fee: Free with $50 minimum order
  • Current pickup timeline: 1 day
  • Delivery fee: $9.99 – $14.00 + $1.00 eco fee
  • Current delivery timeline: 1 day
  • Order with an app: Yes

A new option in the Greater Toronto Area: Voila by Sobey’s

Last year, Sobey’s unveiled its new online grocery brand, Voila. Unlike other grocers, which rely on existing stores and infrastructure to facilitate online ordering, Sobeys has chosen to build warehouses to centralize the service. In doing so, Sobeys says they can fulfill orders faster and more efficiently and eliminate the need for substitutions due to stocking issues.

Currently, Voila is piloting curbside pickup at a handful of Sobey’s store locations in Nova Scotia, with orders assembled by hand in-store. Pickup windows are available with about 24 hours’ notice and cost $3.99. No other Sobeys stores or others under their umbrella, including Safeway, FreshCo and IGA, offer curbside pickup. The one exception to this is Thrifty Foods, a chain of about two dozen stores on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

For delivery, Voila is available only in the Greater Toronto Area. Delivery windows are available with about 48 hours’ notice, although the earliest delivery time available in my area was 2 pm. Checking an address in downtown Toronto, I found a much wider range of delivery times were available. Delivery via Voila costs $7.99 and the prices are the same as you would find in-store.

  • Pickup fee: $3.95 (Select Sobey’s locations in Nova Scotia only)
  • Current pickup timeline: (Select Sobey’s locations in Nova Scotia)
  • Delivery fee: Pickup fee plus$7.99
  • Current delivery timeline: 2-3 days
  • Order with an app: Yes

A good online grocery service in Quebec: Metro

With 321 stores in Central Canada, Metro is a popular option – especially in Quebec. For online ordering, though, Metro falls short even in its home province.

The chain offers delivery and in-store pickup, but the options are currently very limited. Delivery is offered only in downtown areas of Toronto and Montreal, and pickup is only offered in a handful of stores in major centres like Quebec, Montreal, Lava and Gatineau.

Where pickup and delivery are available, the availability and pricing is reasonable. You’ll find pickup time slots for the same day and there’s no charge for the service. Delivery windows are available within 1-2 days and Metro charges $11.99 for the service. The prices are the same as in-store and there are no additional service fees or hidden charges.

While the availability of Metro’s pickup and delivery services is underwhelming, the chain has introduced a “priority” service that prioritizes curbside pickup orders for people at risk. Anyone can use the service, but Metro will try to serve people with the greatest need first, such as seniors, people with disabilities and people who are ill or self-isolating.

  • Pickup fee: $4.00 with $50 minimum order
  • Current pickup timeline: 1-2 days
  • Delivery fee: $11.99
  • Current delivery timeline: 1-2 days
  • Order with an app: Yes

The bottom line

For the best balance of delivery timeline, product availability and fees, choose Loblaws and Superstore. A close second place in this category is Walmart, which suffers only because of its more limited product selection. Both are at the top of the list only thanks to their partnership with Instacart, which has proven to be an effective (if expensive) partner in grocery delivery.

Regionally, shoppers in Western Canada will find Save-On-Foods to be a very compelling choice. If the chain were able to offer online ordering coast-to-coast, it might well find itself named the best in Canada.

In Southern Ontario, Longo’s Grocery Gateway is a very good option, although delivery times are still not as fast as some competitors and fees are high. Voila by Sobeys is a more affordable option if you live in the Toronto area and don’t mind waiting a couple of days to get your groceries.

In Quebec, Metro is an available alternative but still underdelivering when it comes to online orders. If you live in a part of Quebec where other options are available, you’ll probably want to check them out before looking at Metro.

For an alternative fast delivery option, check out the Cornershop app. It’s possible to get groceries delivered from a number of stores within 90 minutes, and this Uber-owned service is on its way to becoming a worthy rival to Instacart.

If non-perishables are what you need, take a look at Amazon for good prices, decent selection and relatively fast delivery. If you need to buy in larger quantities or need something specific, Costco is a decent option if you’re a member.

The battle to become the best online grocer in Canada is far from settled. The best options at the moment top the list only because fulfillment is provided by Instacart, a third-party company. If others are able to match Instacart’s speed and beat their prices, the title of Best Online Grocer in Canada can be won.

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