Trading the Cart for the Curb
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12 Tips and Tricks to Make Grocery Pickup Worth Trying

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Trading the Cart for the Curb
Fuse / Corbis / Getty Images CC

Trading the Cart for the Curb

Curbside grocery pickup may have been a novelty a couple years ago, but today, it's a staple at many supermarkets across the country. Still wondering whether it's for you? In general, it's a valuable service for anyone who's pressed for time, says Kristin McGrath, editor and shopping expert at Offers.com. "You need to weigh what's more important to you. If it's saving time, go for curbside pickup. If it's saving money, go into the store." And while experts agree that in-store shoppers still have the most opportunities to save, all is not lost for pickup customers. Here's the inside scoop on how it might work for you.

Related: We Tried Walmart's Grocery Pickup and This Is What Happened

Not All Stores Charge a Fee
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Not All Stores Charge a Fee

If you've been put off by the fees for grocery pickup, take note: Some of these services are actually free. "In general, the big-box stores (Walmart and Target) offer curbside grocery loading for free," McGrath says. "Local grocery store chains tend to charge fees, and you can expect around $5 depending on your local chain. Note that some stores will have order minimums for pickup — Walmart's is $30, for example."

Even if your local store does charge a fee, be sure to check whether that's the case for first-timers. Kroger, for instance, waives its $5 pickup fee for the first three orders. There may be other ways to save, too, depending on the store. "Some local grocers will waive the curbside pickup fee if you're willing to wait an extra day to pick up your order," McGrath says.

It Can Help Curb Impulse Buying
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It Can Help Curb Impulse Buying

Even if you do pay a nominal fee to pick up your groceries, all but the most disciplined shoppers are still likely to come out ahead. That's because placing your order ahead of time eliminates those in-store snap decisions that can really add up, says Heather Wheeler, co-founder of The Krazy Coupon Lady. "Pickup is best for shoppers who tend to overspend in impulse purchases in store. Avoiding those can save a lot. Also, if you're the kind of shopper who loses track of how much you're spending as you load your cart in the store, pickup allows you to watch your total grow as you shop online beforehand, helping you make smarter decisions."

Investigate Pricing Before You Commit
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Investigate Pricing Before You Commit

Afraid of missing in-store sales or paying inflated prices if you use grocery pickup? Fortunately, at many stores, that won't be the case. "When you're putting together your pickup order, you may notice that the store is making some of its in-store BOGO and other offers and specials available to online pickup shoppers," McGrath says. And while that may not always be true, there may also be exclusive offers for pickup customers that can help balance things out.   

While McGrath warns that some stores may mark up prices for pickup customers, that's not the case at the biggest grocery chains. Kroger pledges that its pickup prices mirror its in-store prices, as does Walmart.

Related: Over 50 Store-Brand Foods That Deliver Quality and Savings

Certain Products May Be Better To Nab In-Store
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Certain Products May Be Better To Nab In-Store

Even assuming your store doesn't mark up products for grocery pickup, Wheeler warns that she would avoid using the service for household, health and beauty products in particular. "You can find coupons for those items at drug stores, making them as much as 70 to 80% off, but you'll have to shop in store." Another place to look for deep discounts on these nonperishable items: Warehouse clubs, where buying them in bulk can mean big savings in the long run.

Know Your Timeframe
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Know Your Timeframe

Placing your order at least a day in advance should give you your choice of time slots for pickup, but same-day orders can be tricky, depending on the store. For instance, Kroger allows shoppers to place orders up to three days early, but if you're looking for same-day service, it still requires orders to be placed several hours in advance. "If you need anything same-day, there is generally a cutoff. Walmart, for example, requires you to place your order by 1 p.m. for same-day pickup. Other stores have their own policies," McGrath says.

Plot Your Order Carefully …
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Plot Your Order Carefully …

Placing your order online lessens the chance that you'll forget the milk or buy your fifth box of baking soda — after all, the kitchen is often right there, making it easier than ever to check your pantry or fridge. But checking is essential, because it can be difficult to alter your order once it's placed. "Stores have their own policies about editing orders and adding new items," McGrath says. "Kroger, for example, allows you to edit your order or add items on next-day orders until midnight the day before you pick up your order. In general, things get tricky at the last minute, or if you need to update an order that's already been filled."

… But Don't Sweat It If Life Happens
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… But Don't Sweat It If Life Happens

Most seasoned pickup customers know the sinking feeling of either missing their pickup window outright or realizing they simply won't be able to make it to the store on time. If that happens, all is not lost, Wheeler says. "If it's the same day as your time slot, and you're going to be a bit late, just call the store. If you miss the pickup time and you're not able to call the store, they'll cancel the order and you can reorder at your convenience."

Picky About Produce? Use the Notes
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Picky About Produce? Use the Notes

Plenty of shoppers say they're leery of grocery pickup because they don't want other people selecting their produce or tossing in a loaf of bread that's close to going stale. McGrath says stores are trying to address these concerns, and Walmart has even specially trained its shoppers to pick better produce. Wheeler agrees: "Grocery stores know this is a pain point for grocery pick up and try to take care, especially with produce. … Don't let this be the reason you don't try out the service. But be sure to add notes when compiling your order. If you want green bananas, tell them. If you want ripe peaches, let them know."

Substitutions Aren't So Scary
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Substitutions Aren't So Scary

Another hang-up for many who avoid grocery pickup: The idea that stores will willy-nilly substitute undesirable items when what they really wanted is out of stock. This is true in part — some stores may "require you to opt in to substitutions when you make your order, giving the personal shopper authority to select substitutions," McGrath says. But that doesn't mean you're completely powerless: At most stores, you'll be told of any substitutions at pickup, and you'll generally have the chance to nix them.   

Also note that substitutions can actually end up working in your favor, as stores typically charge you the lower price even if they substitute a higher-value item.

Paper Coupons May Be Out
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Paper Coupons May Be Out

Sadly, paper coupons are out of step with the streamlined, mostly digital world of grocery pickup. "In general, paper coupons and manufacturer coupons for pickup orders are a no-go. In many cases, your order is generally completed and paid for before you even get to the store," McGrath says. However, she notes one big exception: Kroger, which allows customers to bring coupons when they pick up their order, though the chain does note that using them will drag out the process. 

Even if your store doesn't accept paper coupons for pickup, don't fret: Digital coupons will probably be available to "clip" online when you place your order, and some chains have special deals just for pickup customers. Target even integrates its popular Cartwheel offers into its pickup service, McGrath says. 

Avoid 'Rush Hour' Pickups, If Possible
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Avoid 'Rush Hour' Pickups, If Possible

Think of grocery pickup like most other services: You're likely to encounter more of a crowd — and, accordingly, more of a wait — if you go get your order at peak times. "It's generally wise to avoid the early evening hours, so you're not waiting alongside everyone else who is picking up orders on the way home from work or daycare pickup," McGrath notes. "Avoiding the day before major cooking holidays, such as Thanksgiving, is also wise." 

You may also be able to avoid a wait by targeting the middle of your pickup window rather than the beginning or the end, as Kroger recommends.

Keep Your Credit Card Handy
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Keep Your Credit Card Handy

For the most part, you're going to be limited to plastic when you use grocery pickup. Wheeler notes that pickup clerks won't accept cash because it's a safety issue (and for most chains, the same goes for any tips, even if clerks go above and beyond for you). And while customers using SNAP/EBT may be out of luck in many places, McGrath says there is one big exception: Walmart, which allows customers to choose EBT cards as their payment method upon ordering.