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How to find the best grocery delivery service

They may be convenient but there are risks and restrictions involved when buying food online.

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, IGA and Harris Farm Markets. Here's what we learnt to help you get the best out of your order. 

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Searching for items online

While all four supermarkets offer the option to browse products by category (like the aisles in a 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 kids' chocolate milk 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.

App alternatives

Coles and Woolworths also have apps for Android and iOS devices. These are optimised for mobile and typically easier to use than the web browser when shopping on your smartphone.

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. Delays due to driver shortages can occur from time to time. The supermarket should notify you, but that may not happen until after your delivery window has closed.

Ordering fresh produce

All of the supermarkets in our test have moved to an order by item count system for most fruit and vegetable. This means you buy a specific number of things rather than a specific weight – so six potatoes instead of 500g of spuds. There are some exceptions, such as pre-packaged produce in a bag that's already been weighed out.

The amount you buy is then charged based on weight. Weight estimates and cost per gram or kilogram are provided by Coles, IGA and Harris Farm, but not Woolworths.

The problem with this system is you may receive pieces that are smaller or larger than average. In our case, the discrepancy was around 200g above and below. There's really no way around this, so it's safer to buy instore if you need a specific amount of produce. Alternatively, you could order extra just to be safe and freeze anything you can't get through.

Food safety

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 to eat. 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 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 or return if this happens, though it could come down to your word against the supermarket's.

We found 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 order from Coles – which included butter, milk, cheese and meat – was above the recommended safe temperatures on arrival. Dairy was around 10°C and chicken was about 9°C. We placed a second order with Coles to make sure this wasn't an anomaly, and while temperatures were lower across the board, they were still above the recommended safe levels.

IGA also delivered one order with dairy above recommended temperatures. Milk, cheese and butter all recorded temperatures around 10°C. However, dairy was much closer to safe levels in the second order, being only slightly elevated.

Though Woolworths presented similar issues in our 2020 test, things improved in 2021. Chicken, beef mince, milk, cheese and butter arrived at slightly elevated temperatures between 5.5°C and 6.2°C, compared to the 2020 delivery where all of our refrigerated goods arrived at elevated temperatures in the second delivery, including chicken breast which was 12.3°C.

Almost all of the food from Harris Farm arrived within a safe temperature range. The only exception was a stick of butter, which recorded a slightly elevated temperature of 5.5°C.

Use by and best before dates

Supermarkets cannot deliver food that's spoiled or past the use by or best before dates. You are immediately entitled to a refund if something like this winds up in your order.

You may receive perishable goods closer to their use by or best before dates than you'd prefer, and that's something to keep in mind if you want groceries to last as long as possible.

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.

This isn't really an issue if it's the same product made by a different company and we noticed an overall improvement in the quality of the substitutions during our 2021 test. In fact, we even got some more expensive items at no extra cost.

Coles and Woolworths substitute out of stock products if you tick the approval box at checkout. Harris Farm and IGA will do this by default, unless you tick the "no replacements" box at checkout. All four supermarkets almost always delivered every item on our list and there was only one instance (with Woolworths) where products were refunded rather than substituted, even though we allowed substitutions.

Delivery details

Coles, Harris Farm and Woolworths have an option to leave your delivery outside so you don't need to be home to collect it, but they won't leave the below items unattended.

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

This puts the onus on you to be home in time to collect perishable goods. IGA doesn't allow for unattended deliveries.

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: $20 plus the cost of any perishables.
  • IGA: $20 plus the cost of any perishables and cost of returning items to the store.
  • Woolworths: Additional fees up to $25 plus the cost of any perishables may be charged.

How to get free delivery

Most locations offer free delivery if you spend enough money, but 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.

Supermarket subscription services also offer delivery discounts which we've covered below.

Coles

  • Orders of $250 or more on two-hour, four-hour or six-hour delivery windows are eligible for free standard delivery.

Harris Farm

  • Orders from $170 to $219.99 are eligible for free eight-hour or next day delivery.
  • Orders of $220 or more are eligible for free next day delivery.

IGA

  • No free delivery options stated.

Woolworths

  • Orders of $300 of more are eligible for free next day delivery.

Supermarket subscription services

Like Netflix, Fitbit and a number of other companies, Coles and Woolworths have found a way to get a slice of the subscription service pie. Each supermarket provides a handful of benefits for a monthly fee. 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.

Coles Plus

Cost: $19 per month. 

What is it? Coles Plus offers free same day delivery (or next day during busy periods) on orders over $100, plus double Flybuys points, free access to Click and Collect Rapid for orders over $30, one free Liquorland delivery per month for an order over $50, and priority customer support.

Woolworths Delivery Unlimited 

Cost: $10–15 per month or $119 per year. 

What is it? Woolworths Delivery Unlimited offers free same day or next day delivery on orders over $50, plus double Woolworths Rewards points, priority customer support and no additional charge for paper and reusable bags.

Supermarket loyalty programs

Grocers don't just want to get your business, they want to keep it. Coles, Harris Farm and Woolworths offer loyalty programs that reward repeat customers.

  • Coles: Flybuys bonus points.
  • Harris Farm: Free standard or economy delivery on Wednesdays for orders over $80. There's also $5 delivery discounts for return weekly shoppers and free delivery on orders over $120 for Gold Customers. To be eligible for Gold status, a customer must have spent $1000 in the last 30 days, $2500 in the last 90 days or $7500 in the last 12 months.
  • Woolworths: Everyday Rewards points.