Episode 9: Turned off by tip-baiting, the Pittsburgh-area Instacart worker went solo

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Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Many consumers are relying on delivery workers to shop for and deliver their groceries to protect themselves during the pandemic. With increased demand, some customers have been making their orders look more appealing by adding big tips and then reducing or zeroing it out after the job is done. On this episode, Selena Eisenberg, who is also a mom with ambitious career dreams of her own, shares the personal toll of being baited and how it prompted her to strike out as an independent personal shopper.

JOURDAN HICKS: Having a personal shopper during a pandemic isn’t always a luxury. For some, it’s a necessity. That’s how Selena Eisenberg sees it.

Until recently, Selena delivered groceries for Instacart. It was going alright. Then the coronavirus hit. All of a sudden, there were a whole lot of new Instacart customers. Which sounds good, but there were also a whole lot of new shoppers hired, too. Instacart expanded their army of gig workers dramatically.

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And then the tip baiting started.

SELENA: “Tip baiting was probably the hardest thing and the thing that pushed me over the edge. This is not play money when you're talking about a family of six. You know, we’re counting on this income.”

JOURDAN HICKS: The CEO of Instacart calls his company’s employees a “Community of Household Heroes” - but Selena didn’t feel that way.

SELENA: “The owner of Instacart is just so incredibly out of touch with the reality of what any of the Instacart workers are actually going through. Remember that some of those heroes are hostages.”

JOURDAN HICKS: Now Selena is trying something new. She started her own personal shopping business -- Selena Shops. But what is it like to start a new business during a pandemic? And what should the thousands of Pittsburghers hunkered down at home, waiting for their next delivery, know about what it’s like for the gig worker on the other end of the order?

Here’s her story:

SELENA: My name is Selena Eisenberg. I am a mom of four, a full-time University of Pittsburgh undergrad student and I decided during the COVID outbreak to open my own business as a personal shopper.

I was born here in Pittsburgh. I did move away for a little bit. But of course came back because that's what most Pittsburghers do.

And before I decided to go back to school, I had sort of done a little bit of everything. I dealt poker at the casino. I sold wedding dresses, I sold life insurance. I had sort of just done everything. But my dream had always been to be an OB/GYN.

And so I decided just a couple of years ago that I would go back to Pitt and get my undergrad and then hopefully get into Pitt Med.

I had decided to do Instacart almost a year ago part-time when I wasn't in school or taking classes. And it seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn't terrible. I actually really enjoyed shopping for people. You knew what to expect. There weren't a lot of surprises. And when you really needed help, support was available. It wasn't ideal but it worked. And then we had corona and things changed pretty dramatically.

Lots of things sort of came together to create a frenzy of unhappy shoppers and unhappy customers.

NEWS CLIP: Okay, so what do you do now? If you're one of the tens of millions who've lost your job, you're one of the temporary laid off or furloughed...

SELENA: Instacart started hiring a ton of people far more than there was legitimate work.

NEWS CLIP: The on-demand shopping service Instacart, they're hiring 250,000 thousand shoppers. They've already hired 300,000. The online grocery delivery company will focus on hiring in areas with the highest demand. That includes California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, D.C. and Toronto.

SELENA: So what's happening is they are offering the best -- they call them "batches" -- the best batches to the newest people to get them, like, hooked on how great Instacart is. And then the people who've been doing this for years are sometimes sitting days without getting any batches to work.

From that point, customers became unhappy because the quality of service went down.

There were people who would try and get a hold of support and have to sit in parking lots for hours, waiting to hear from anybody at Instacart.

And then the tip baiting began.

So with Instacart, customers have the option to put in what they're going to tip before the order is ever shopped.

So Instacart pays a portion and then the rest of the payment to the shopper is based on the tip that the client has already agreed to pay. And because Instacart allows customers to adjust the tip for three days after a shop, people also recognize that shoppers are more likely to pick up an order and shop it for you if they're going to make a lot of money, which makes sense.

You know, we're going out into a pandemic and putting our health on the line. So we want to be compensated as well as we can be.

They were putting in tips that they didn't intend to actually deliver on. And inevitably, the tips would disappear after the delivery came through.

My first tip bait was pretty bad, and I had actually spent a lot of time communicating with the customer while I was shopping. And so I had made sure that they had everything that they wanted that I could possibly get my hands on.

And I dropped everything off. And by the time I had completed my following order, the tip had gone to zero.

And so to know that every time I was going to the store, there was a chance that I actually wasn't going to make any money, because often the payments from the Instacart end are $7, $12. And so you can spend an hour shopping for a customer and if they zero out the tip, you've now made $12 and that obviously isn't covering gas or time and it's not paying any bills. So the first time I sort of chalked it up to a bad luck and then it started happening more often.

I had this realization, I was sitting in my car, I was looking at all of the orders that I had the option to take. And I realized I was terrified to take them because there was a chance that I would put in all of this energy and then not be compensated. I actually went onto Facebook into one of my mommy groups, expressed my frustration as to what was going on. And somebody said, can't you just do our orders and not work for anyone else? Just work for people that you trust? And I thought about it and I did a little research and I found a platform that does exactly that.

They have an app and they provide what's called microloans.

So essentially, I have access to the funds to pay for our customers’ groceries before I charge them. So the microloans mean that I'm not actually having to use my own personal cards to purchase other people's groceries. And I get to decide things like cost and how many stores I'll go to for somebody. And that's really exciting because now I'm not just showing up with half of what a customer wants because I can just say, all right, I'm gonna go pop into Giant Eagle and then I'll pop into a Target.

And it means that everyone's getting what they need. And I'm having a better experience. And I trust my clients and my clients trust me. And I think that is the huge difference for me between being out on my own and being with Instacart, where I know that I'll have orders, but I don't know that I'll get paid, which is terrible.

I definitely had moments where I lost a little bit of faith in people. I do remember one time I had an order, and it was before all of the stores had that like two policy limit, but it was still when all the shelves were empty. And I looked down and I had an order from someone and they had asked for like 6 gallons of organic milk. And I looked at the shelf and, I will admit, there were 6 gallons. There weren't many more. Maybe 10 or 12. And I said, I can't -- I can't do this. Like, I can't knowingly strip the shelves of all of this milk seeing that the store is packed with other people. I just can't. It's not fair.

And so I definitely did not get all 6 gallons of milk for that customer. So if you were that customer, I'm sorry-ish.

This has brought out the very best or the very worst in people. I've seen incredible kindness, but then I've also seen grown men get into screaming matches and like take each other outside to get in fistfights over products.

Starting personal shopping on my own has been amazing. You know, I obviously got pushed into doing this on my own because things weren't going well. But sometimes you need that kick in the hiney to end up getting a really positive result. And that is what I've gotten. And so I'm really grateful that I did it. And I'm busy. I'm not Instacart busy and I don't want to be Instacart busy. I am not in this to shop for 12, 14, 16 people a day. I want to make sure that the clients that I have every day are happy. And that is more important to me than being able to just like hammer out order after order after order.

I am very torn about the direction that the business is going to go. I am pre-med. I am planning on going to medical school. My life has already sort of over-flowed with things that I'm trying to manage. And I don't know that moving forward, I'll be able to add this in as a permanent business. I would like to think that I'll be able to pass it off to somebody else or bring in a partner and, you know, just do it part time and let them take the majority of the orders over. I absolutely will not just abandon the customers that I have. I will find a way to either transfer them to another personal shopper or I guess, make big shops on the weekends for everybody.

My customers have been wonderful.

I have one customer who has a kiddo with a lot of health issues. I happen to know that of the three kids, one of the kiddos loves unicorns and one of them loves chocolate chip muffins.

And so I try and always bring a treat because the kids are really suffering. I always know that there is an extrovert child in a house when I go to deliver things and there's like pictures drawn and left for me.

And so when that happens, I try to make sure that the next time I deliver there, I leave a surprise. I like to give them some connection to the outside world because so many of us have lost these connections that we had before.

And so I hope that I fulfill more than just dropping off supplies for people. I'm hoping that I at least brighten their day for that little bit of time that I'm in it.

I even keep the pictures that the kids draw me. I tape them to the back of my seat in my car, so then when I load my car, I see like the little thank-you notes. It's adorable.

This podcast was produced by Andy Kubis and edited by Mila Sanina and Halle Stockton. If you have a story you'd like to share, get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669. Or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

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