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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
Last updated: 06 September 2018

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. 

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. 

We also found that although all three retailers consistently delivered their goods within the allocated time slot, some provide more convenient options than others. Notably, Harris Farm Markets doesn't deliver before 10am, which might be inconvenient for anyone hoping to get their groceries delivered before heading out for the day.

Ordering produce

When ordering fresh produce, the retailer provides an estimate of how much an 'average' piece of that fruit or vegetable weighs and you then choose the number of pieces you want to get the total you need. For example, if a broccoli floret is estimated to weigh 330 grams and you need one kilogram you might order three florets. 

The problem with this system is the pieces you receive may actually be significantly smaller or larger than average, meaning you could feasibly end up with anywhere 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.

Another thing to note is that Woolworths and Harris Farm charge based on the estimated weight, not actual weight, so it is possible to be slightly overcharged. 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.

We were also impressed to find that all three retailers delivered produce that was in good condition and had an appropriate level of ripeness, similar to what we'd select ourselves in a supermarket.

Ordering meat

If food safety is important to you, you may want to avoid ordering fresh meat from Coles and Woolworths. Both supermarkets delivered chicken breasts that were not adequately chilled – in one delivery a chicken breast from Coles arrived at 12.6°C and in another delivery from Woolworths the temperature of a chicken breast measured 11.5°C.

These measurements raised concerns because there's no way to know if the chicken was at a temperature higher than 5°C for a period of more than two hours, in which case it would need to be cooked immediately or thrown away rather than being re-refrigerated. 

Harris Farm, on the other hand, delivered meat and dairy in a cool bag with an ice pack and their chicken breasts recorded temperatures of 4.2°C and 6.9°C in our two test deliveries.

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.

Woolworths and Coles almost always delivered every item on our list, but Harris Farm made multiple substitutions and omissions per order. While some of these were essentially free upgrades (such as organic butter instead of regular butter) some of the substitutions were unsatisfactory (we got corn chips instead of potato chips) and on one occasion an omitted item was not removed from the bill, meaning we paid for something we didn't receive. Once we raised these issues with Harris Farm we received a speedy refund, but if we hadn't checked the invoice against the goods received it might have gone unnoticed.

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, however Harris Farm sometimes failed to provide this.

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