Friday, November 24, 2017

Instacart - a Review

Last year, we were sitting in No-Name Harbor on a very hot day and we needed to provision. The Winn Dixie is a mile and a half away by foot or a $7.00 cab fare. To be honest, I was just beat from the last  months of working on the boat, and didn't feel like the walk. I had heard about Instacart, an online service offered through Publix locally, and one I often thought was tailor made for cruising sailors. I went online and signed up, filled out a cart which included a lot of the heavy items I would have had to lug back on my rolly cart. After seeing the "service fee" of 10% and the delivery fee, I backed out of the cart, put on my shoes and started walking. It was, after all, a beautiful day and at least half of the walk was through the lovely Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park trails.

Fast forward to today. My daughter is living here with us and is expecting in two weeks. She's not feeling particularly well at this point, the birth center is a hefty drive away, and we share a car. Being 15 minutes away from the marina with a cart full of groceries and receiving a call that she was in labor and needed the car - STAT - was not my idea of a good time, so I thought I'd try the Instacart again just in case things had changed for the better in the last year.

I filled my cart, concentrating on the sale items they listed. I also added a lot of the heavy items I wouldn't want to haul in the bike trailer, my second traveling option. I got to the cart and there is still a 10% "service charge", which I assumed was the shopping fee for the shopper. On my order it was less than $15.00 and the delivery fee was free for my first order so I decided to give it a go. Bicycling is free, but the 2-1/2 hours it would have taken me to bike in, shop, and bike back were certainly not as good as that same 2-1/2 hours playing UNO with my grandkids.

The ordering process is pretty straightforward in their iOS app. It's easy to navigate, and the items are well described. A full nutritional value and ingredient list are provided so it's easy to compare products. The shopping cart is easy to understand, quantities are easy to adjust, and items are easy to add or remove. Coupon items have their own tab and are easy to browse through. Once in the checkout process, the service fee and delivery charges are clear. I placed my order just after 2:00 pm and my initial delivery was supposed to be between 4-5:00.

Close to 4:00 I checked the app and was a bit surprised to see that my order hadn't been picked yet. I guess to be fair though, it was Black Friday. It wasn't until 5:12 that I got the first text saying that my shopper had started shopping. At 5:31 I received my first text regarding any problems. One of the items that was on sale was out of stock and had been refunded from the order. It gives you a link in the text to go to where you can either approve the removal of the item or change it to something else.

At 5:50 I received the second text of an issue. Another item I wanted was out of stock and the text said that my shopper had replaced it with a similar item. Because the item was a very specific item required by my food-sensitive grandkids, it was necessary for me to go in and remove the item because there was no substitute. At 6:24 I received another text about another replacement. This time I was able to go in and change it to something I wanted rather than the one he had chosen. Two other changes brought the total to 5 changes out of 29 items.

At 7:05 I received a text that the shopper was on the way. The shopper arrived promptly, was efficient, courteous, and helpful. I had a chance to speak with him about his role in the shopping experience and I learned some things that may impact your decision whether to use this service.

1. The "service fee" is a fee that is defined on their site,

What is the Service Fee?

The Service Fee is used to provide customer support and recognize the efforts of the whole team for providing you with great service.

Is the Service Fee a tip? 

The Service Fee allows Instacart to operate our service and provide customer support. This payment is distinct from a tip as it does not go directly to the shopper delivering your order.

The service fee is 10%. My shopper told me that it used to be the tip, but that recently they changed it from a direct tip to the shopper, to a fee collected for "the whole team" as it says above. He was unsure who "the whole team" was. The shopper collects $.40 per item shopped and a delivery payment of $4.50, which used to be $9.00 and was recently reduced. For my 29 items, that equaled $11.60 for over two hours of work at a whopping $5.80 per hour less gas in the car (they use their own.) He also told me that if he drives over 13 miles he gets another $5.00 for the delivery but that frequently they give him two orders to do at the same time, one within a few miles, and one 20 miles away.

2. The Tip:

After receiving my order, which was well packed, I received a text that had a link to rate the experience as well as to make "adjustments" to my order. The "adjustments" are in fact a place to add the tip for the shopper, 100% of which goes to the shopper. None of the service fee appears to go to the shopper.

3. Prices:

I'm one of those people that is freakish about number memory. I still remember my phone number from when I was a young child and I know the price of almost everything I routinely buy. So it was easy for me to compare the prices on Instacart to those in the actual store. Almost all of the prices were higher than in the store. For instance, the gallon of organic milk I usually buy is $5.99 in the store. It was $6.69 on Instacart. The Kambucha I get is usually $8.99 for the big bottle and it was $9.99 on Instacart. The Second Nature trail mix I usually buy is $5.99 in the store, $6.49 on Instacart so you can see that there is already more than a 10% markup on some items even before the 10% service fee. There were a few that were cheaper because they were on sale on Instacart and weren't on sale in the store. The difference was not enough to make up for the marked up items.

So...would I use it again? I can honestly say that I wouldn't use it again unless it was an exceptional situation - I was sick and couldn't drive, I had no possible transportation to the store, I needed a prescription filled. There were some points in the process that I felt a bit "trapped" or maybe "coerced" is the right word. Had I known right up front that I would spend 10% more for the items, 10% for the processing fee, and 10% for the tip, I wouldn't have done it. You find these out bit by bit after you are already committed.

I'm also a bit gun shy around any company that abuses its workers. If I have any other option, I rarely use Walmart just for that reason. The way this company uses independent contractors reeks a bit of the way my daughter and son-in-law were exploited as graduate students. Were I to use it again it would be with the full knowledge that I was paying 30% more for the privilege of curling up in my cockpit with a good book instead of schlepping to the store on Black Friday. If you decide to use the service, I only ask that you treat your shopper fairly and add a reasonable tip.

Locally, for me, it only lists Publix and CVS and a couple other small stores, but in larger cities there are a lot of other stores like Whole Foods, Costco, Kroger, ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, Petco, Shop and Save, Schnucks, and The Food Emporium. That list is far from incomplete. You have to get online and check out your zipcode to see what stores are available in your area.

Clearly there are some benefits of having this service. But to use it regularly as your sole means of provisioning is a habit best left to those in mega yachts with a much bigger budget than Kintala's.

Light at the end of the tunnel...

The sails are on Kintala. The Ding is in the water though, unfortunately, sans engine. The little Merc suffered a shifter failure, it seizing up completely in the Florida heat and humidity. That little motor really has proven to be a miserable bit of equipment, difficult to keep running at idle and prone to failures of the fuel valve, carburetor, and now, shifter. There doesn’t seem to be a cost effective option so we will continue to do the best we can with what we have.

Florida weather has finally given way to something other than brutal heat and humidity. The constant roar of air conditioning is gone with fresh air now flowing into the boat from open hatches and ports. It is remarkably delightful to lie under the covers and feel the evening or morning breeze drift by. One can stand to sit in the cockpit even after the sun has come up and, wonder of wonders, sip hot coffee! It will still be a while before we enjoy all this while riding to the anchor somewhere. Grand Baby soon-to-be-youngest is expected sometime in the next few weeks. Kintala will not be wandering anywhere until the new little one arrives and gets settled in a bit. We hope to make some weekend trips out into Tampa bay after that, spend some nights on the hook then return to our Snead Island slip for a few more weeks of work, before heading off to places south then east. It seems a long, long time since we were “cruisers” but at least it isn’t like the first time we were at Oak Harbor getting ready to set out on our maiden trip south down the ICW. In our fifth year of living on the boat, multiple trips to the Islands, three though the Keys, and now the better part of two years spent working in a boat yard; we do know our way around a little bit. This time, with departure at least on the horizon, there is very little of the “about to start on an adventure” feeling, more “getting back to where we want to be.’’

That will be weeks yet and, until then, “working on boats” is what fills the waking hours of the week. The other day a truck rolled into the yard with a new Marlow Hunter 47 in tow and parked it right off Kintala’s bow. Most of the folks around here seem to have a rather poor opinion of the breed, but it isn’t a bad looking boat and the interior is a floating Taj Mahal. About what one would expect for a boat that costs a big tick more than half a million dollars fresh from the boat show. I was strolling past it, heading for the head, when a friend made a joke and asked, “Is that your next boat?”

“Sure”, I replied. “All it takes is one modest sized lottery win.”

“You would actually buy a Hunter?”

“Why not?” I replied, much to his surprise.

Of course I probably wouldn’t buy a new Hunter, but not because it is a Hunter. I would be just as unlikely to buy a new Tartan, Beneteau, or Catalina. Horror stories from those who have bought new boats, and paid new boat prices, are pretty common. Warranties often sound like a politician’s promise, long on pretty words, short on actually doing anyone any good. My lottery money would go toward a two or three year old boat that has been used for more than weekend anchoring while having a good maintenance history. And I really wouldn’t care which manufacturer’s name was tattooed to its hide. For, regardless of who made it, it will sail just fine on a beam reach or off the wind.

How will they go to weather? The hard fact is I no longer care, for I try to do that as little as possible. It strains the rig, the ride is ugly, and it wears out the crew. If banging into the wind and waves is unavoidable, it is likely I will make like a trawler with a really tall antenna, fire up the engine, grit my teeth, and grind away until the weather improves or the anchor goes down. There are exceptions of course, those fantastic days where the wind is off the bow at just the right angle and speed, while the seas remain modest. All the sails go out, the boat heels just that artistic amount and slices through the water at 6 or 7 knots like some kind of magic carpet. On those perfect days, pretty much any boat will shine. Sure, one will point a little higher or go a little faster, but all will be a magic carpet ride and crews on any of them will be happy little campers. So how many such perfect days have we seen since leaving Oak Harbor that first time? A dozen, maybe less.

There is one pretty common design feature among new boats that I question, that of the fin keel and spade rudder combination. I know performance and handling made that call. I know that the boats should handle a modest grounding without real damage. (Run one hard onto a reef at hull speed and you are on your own, regardless,) But I still shudder at the thought of picking my way through the shallows so exposed, particularly on those boats where the rudder looks to be hanging deeper in the water than the keel.

I got into this muse because people often ask “what kind of boat is the best?" For my money, pretty much any modern boat is built, to a large degree, better than “good enough”. Handled properly and operated well, any of them will get the crew where they want to go with as much safety as the ocean gods will allow. It is the support system that are likely to drive you nuts: air conditioning, refrigerators and freezers, water makers, pumps, stoves, valves, sails, lines, and deck hardware. All of the boat manufacturers buy that equipment out of the same warehouses, and problems with those units get spread evenly throughout the fleet.

Which is why, when you ask a boat tech “which is the worst boat," he or she is likely to name the one they are currently trying to fix.

So, for now, here is a lovely photo of the sunset last evening on our way back from a Thanksgiving potluck where we got to ogle some really beautiful boats and get to know their owners, a life for which we are very thankful.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Getting away

We are in Saint Louis for a couple of weeks. It had been too long since we had seen Daughters Middle and Youngest, their collective 6 of our grand kids, other family, and friends. Modern life is what it is, and it is hard to imagine living any other way than on our floating tiny house, wandering where we can when we can. Still, the days of extended family groups / tribes living together for a string of lifetimes, generations overlapping, is an image that has its attractions. Being surrounded by kids and grand kids, involved every day in the unfolding of their lives, and having them involved as mine unfolds, is certainly a life well lived. How does that compare to the experience of a larger world, knowing and learning from people who are not “my tribe”, and seeing a little bit of life and our place in the cosmos through a different lens? It doesn't really, they are two radically different ways of living. One chooses and, whatever the choice, will always have moments of wondering if it was the right path to take.

Whenever we are back “inland” and visiting like this, there is this feeling of being reconnected, though inundated might be an equally good description. Living on the boat, particularly when we are working like we are, is very much an ascetic lifestyle. Creature comforts are few, accented by times of outright discomfort when the weather turns foul. Lightning, when it is around, is a real and present danger. Kintala recently escaped a strike only because the boat next to her has a mast several feet taller. We walk to the bathhouse rain or shine, day or night. And I work outside, pretty much regardless of what the weather is doing. We are even more exposed to “outside” when riding to an anchor or mooring ball.

Here, in the city, we go outside, but we don't live there. “Outside” plays across the front windows like a sport’s show on bar TV. Some color and motion but no one is really paying any attention. Phase of the moon, state of the tide, time of sunrise, sunset, moon rise and moon set, all unknown and unimportant. And I mean really unimportant. None have any effect at all on the lives being led. Days go by and no one cares if it is hot or cold, raining or blazing sun, with winds topping 30 knots or it being dead calm.

There are many, perhaps a majority, who see that as one of the most positive things of modern life. We have conquered nature, made ourselves comfortable from her shenanigans except for the most extreme examples. That used to sound right, but I don’t know that I lean that way any more.

Occasionally, I drop by John Michael Greer's blog. His is an interesting take on the universe and, as a result, I have spent a little time reading up on the mythology. It turns out that living on the boat, close to nature, with a lot of time spent in the cockpit breathing deeply of the natural world we find while riding to anchor, all sounds very like his descriptions of Druid meditations. They take the idea of magic a bit more literally than seems likely to be true. But is it really that far removed from the impulse to petition a deity to do something or other? (These days those so inclined always seem to call on the deity after the hurricane strikes or the terrorist attacks, which seems a bit backward.)

I also wonder if the Druid's magic, or that of any other mythical ideology, is actually pretty closely related to those moments that brush by while standing watch far from land on a star filled night. Maybe, if one looks at it from the other side (so to speak), “magic” isn’t a matter of us changing something that is going on in the cosmos to our liking. It could be that "magic" is allowing the goings on of the cosmos to change us, shaping our journey here to be useful and eternal. Perhaps the reason the modern world is so lacking in wisdom is that we have cut ourselves off from the source, from the cathedral of the cosmos that is the foundation of our being.

In any case, getting away for us also means coming home. And leaving here will mean going home. There is something pretty special about that, something I haven’t fully grasped.

Maybe, someday, I will.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Of Faeries, Foliage, Fires and Friends

If you've never lived on a boat or gone cruising, you might wonder why we might sometimes need a vacation from the boat. "You're already vacationing in Paradise - how could you possibly need a vacation?" is a question we receive on occasion. But daily life on a boat is a special kind of intensity that you can't imagine unless you've been there, and everyone there needs a break once in a while, a reset of sorts. The past few months have left us deeply fatigued, with the heat and the political climate and the devastation the storms rendered on some of our favorite cruising grounds. We have a significant need of one of those resets to get us out of the funk. Ours came in the form of family visits to two of our three girls and six of our soon-to-be ten grandchildren in St. Louis.
This visit was scheduled apart from any holiday in an attempt to be back to the boat before grandchild #10 was born in December and also to hopefully avoid the holiday gift that keeps on giving in the form of the latest flu virus. It just happened to coincide with the turning of the leaves and, while it was a bit nippy for thin-blooded Florida travelers, offered many sunny days to walk to parks and play outside.

The first visit to the park was with our St. Charles granddaughter. After spending some time on the playground, we ventured along the path and found a colorfully painted rock hidden in a dip in the bark of a fallen tree. It turns out that there is a new fad of hiding rocks with pretty pictures and happy sayings painted on them where others can stumble on them. They're called Kindness Rocks and their entire goal is to make people happy. They must be working, because my granddaughter had a big smile on her face and, soon after, found some to paint and hide herself.

The visit to our city-dwelling grandkids offered a backyard bonfire and s'mores with some neighbors, a cool night where the fire was welcome and the aroma of hickory sparked a stroll down the memory lane of camping trips. Later in the week, we had a chance to share some coffee and conversation with good friends from our early sailing days on Carlyle Lake, a conversation that lasted till we were kicked out at closing. Even though the week was packed with soccer and school, time was allowed for some walks through Tower Grove park as well as some long walks through the Flora Avenue park near their home. A few brief moments into the walk today yielded some happy squeals from the kids, who had found a Faerie house nestled in the cleft of the trunk of a rather large tree. Having been so isolated from the popular and trendy for so many months, I was unaware of the Faerie house movement, where kids and some grownups are making tiny little houses at the base of trees in parks and yards to welcome the Wee Folks and pass along a smile in the doing of it. Today on our walk we counted 34 of them in all stages of intricate and whimsical. Along the way, we enjoyed the peak of the leaf season, a pileup of leaves in which to jump, and a visit to our favorite ice cream parlor, Ices Plain and Fancy.

Tomorrow we make our way back. It will be difficult to leave the kids. Our near future plans are uncertain, the political climate shows no indication of changing, and then there's always the fact that Tim still has a couple months of work left to grind through. But we'll leave here refreshed. In addition to our bags, we carry with us a feeling of hope, a sureness that this new generation will find a way to restore life as it should be: a life full of kindness, laughter, whimsy and imagination.