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How to find the best grocery delivery service

They may be convenient but there are risks and challenges.

groceries in a crate

Buying groceries online can save time or enable people who don't have a car – or who have limited mobility – to do large weekly shops without worrying about getting the groceries back to their house.

In our supermarket delivery review, we put in online orders with Coles, Woolworths and NSW retailer Harris Farm Markets (which delivers to Sydney and the ACT). This is what we learnt to get the best out of your order. 

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Searching for items online

While all three retailers offer the option to browse products by category (as you would in-store), if you know what you want it's much quicker to simply type each item directly into the search bar. For example, typing 'Dairy Farmers 1L Milk' will yield relevant results so you won't have to trawl through pages of kid's chocolate milks and meal replacement drinks in the milk category. 

If your search isn't giving you the results you're after, try removing one of the words to make the search simpler. Once you've done your first shop you can save your shopping list to make future shops quicker.

Choosing a time slot

Currently, most grocery retailers don't use a centralised warehouse for dispatching orders which means your delivery is packed and delivered by whichever store is closest to you. Available delivery slots will therefore vary greatly depending on where you're ordering. Next-day delivery is often booked out, so if you need your delivery at a specific time you might need to order a few days in advance. 

Ordering produce

Our previous test found that supermarkets estimate the weight of the average piece of fruit or veg, rather than weighing your order to calculate cost. That's practice has changed, somewhat, but it's still hanging around in some cases:

  • Coles charges based on weight.
  • Harris Farm and Woolworths charge on a weight estimate that is calculated at checkout. This could result in slight under or overcharging.

The problem with the system used by Harris Farm and Coles is the pieces you receive may actually be significantly smaller or larger than average, meaning you could end up with anything between 600g to 1.4kg. There's really no way around this, so if you need a specific amount of produce (such as for a recipe) it's safer to buy in store or order extra in case the ones you get are smaller than average. In practice, we found that you're equally likely to be undercharged and overall these estimations actually left us around a dollar better off per order.

Food safety

Each store was fairly consistent in delivering food at a safe temperature in our test. However, they did skirt the line at least once with different products. For example, one dairy order from Coles – which included butter, milk, cheese and ice-cream – was just above recommended safe temperatures on arrival. The ice-cream was also a little slushy around the edges.

Woolworths faced similar issues. On one occasion, chicken breast measured 10.5°C on arrival. All of our refrigerated goods arrived at an elevated temperature in the second delivery, including chicken breast which was 12.3°C. Harris Farm chicken breasts recorded temperatures of 9.6°C and 5.2°C in our two test deliveries.

Food Standards Australia says potentially hazardous food must be stored at 5°C or colder. The longer cold food is above this, the greater the risk of it becoming unsafe. The problem is, there's no way to tell how long the food was at these potentially unsafe temperatures, as this dictates whether you can still eat it.

For example, if the chicken was at a temperature higher than 5°C for a period of more than two hours, it would need to be cooked immediately or thrown away rather than being re-refrigerated. Cheese and ice-cream can fare a bit better, but no one wants to eat dairy soup instead of a tasty frozen treat.

You may be eligible for a refund/return if this happens, though it could come down to your word against the supermarkets'.

Dealing with substitutions

If you order a product that your local store doesn't have in stock they'll either leave the item off your order completely (which can be annoying), or substitute it for a similar product of equal or higher value while only charging you the price of the product you ordered.

Coles and Woolworths substitute out of stock products if you tick the approval box at checkout. Harris Farm will get in touch to ask if you want a substitution, product swap or refund. This isn't really an issue if it's the same product made by a different company, but our experience has been that people that pack boxes can get a bit creative if things are in short supply.

However, all three supermarkets almost always delivered every item on our list, including Harris Farm which is an improvement as staff made multiple substitutions and omissions per order in our 2018 test. You will generally get what you ordered, or a suitable substitute. However, make sure you always check your order thoroughly when it arrives as you'll be eligible for a refund on any unsatisfactory substitutions or products that were accidentally left off your order (but were still charged for).

For those items left off your order and removed from your bill, there's nothing you can do but hope they have it in stock next time, or pop to the shop to get it yourself. When this happens you should receive advance notice so you know it won't be included in your order.

Delivery details

Coles, Harris Farms and Woolworths have an option to leave your delivery outside so you don't need to be home to collect it. However, they won't leave these items unattended:

  • Coles: Alcohol, tobacco and non-bagged items.
  • Woolworths: Alcohol, tobacco and sharp objects.

This puts the onus on you to be home in time to collect perishable goods.

You may be charged a fee if the driver expects you to be home and you miss the delivery:

  • Coles: Unspecified additional fees may be charged.
  • Harris Farm: Does not specify.
  • Woolworths: Additional fees up to $25 plus cost of perishables may be charged.

How to get free delivery

Most locations offer free delivery if you spend enough money. However, Coles and Harris Farm add delivery times to the mix which makes things a bit complicated.

The way it works is, you can get your groceries delivered for free in a few hours depending on how much you spend. This delivery window reduces as you spend more money. So, for example, you may have to wait up to six hours for free delivery if you spend $150, whereas food will come within a two hour window if you spend $300.

Coles

  • $150 in a six-hour window
  • $250 in a three-hour window
  • $300 in a two-hour window

Harris Farm

  • $100 order, delivered before 8:00am if ordered before 5pm the day before
  • $120 order in a 5-hour window if ordered before midnight the day before
  • $150 order in a 3-hour window if ordered before midnight the day before
  • $180 order

Woolworths

  • $300 order, flat rate

Supermarket loyalty programs

Grocers don't just want to get your business, they want to keep it. Each company offers loyalty programs that reward repeat customers.

  • Coles: Fly buys bonus points.
  • Harris farms: Free standard or economy delivery on Wednesdays and Saturdays for orders over $80. Delivery discounts for return weekly shoppers. Free delivery on orders over $100 for Gold customers.
  • Woolworths: Woolworths rewards points.

Coles and Woolworths also have subscription options that can save you a lot of money if you place large orders or do the majority of your shopping online.

  • Coles Delivery Plus: $19 per month. Unlimited free deliveries for orders over $100.
  • Woolworths Delivery Unlimited: $19 per month/$169 per year. Unlimited free deliveries for orders over $100.

Just be careful if you decide to sign up. Some promotions offer free delivery if you spend a lot of money on groceries. So, you could wind up losing money on a subscription, depending on the size of your order. Also, these promotions may change over time.