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Natural Grocers

Natural Grocers employee Hillary Taylor checks stock in the produce section of the store Tuesday.

The gig economy is in full swing in Billings. 

Magic City residents can rent out their homes to vacationers using Airbnb, taxi people around town as Lyft and Uber drivers and deliver restaurant meals to those enjoying a night in as UberEATS couriers. 

And, as of June, they can order out their grocery shopping. 

Instacart, the app-based delivery service expanded to Montana, entered the Billings market three weeks ago. The service employs shoppers who take grocery orders from Instacart users, shop at the stores and then deliver those orders to the users' homes. Instacart's expansion into Billings includes the Heights, Lockwood, Acton, Huntley and Pryor.

"We have a company goal to cover roughly 80 percent of households in the U.S.," said Instacart general manager Jessica Murdock. 

Montana, of course, is a big part of that strategy, she said. 

With a population of just more than a million people statewide, Montana often lags behind other more populous states when companies launch new products or services, especially when they're tech-based. For example, ride-share companies Uber and Lyft, which launched in 2009 and 2012 respectively, didn't arrive in Montana until 2016. 

Uber's meal delivery service, UberEATS arrived in the fall of 2017.

Instacart first launched in 2012 and so far is apparently the only app-based retail delivery service in the area. Part of what allowed Instacart to makes its push into Montana before other delivery services is its partnerships, Murdock said. 

Instacart has developed relationships with national chains like Costco, CVS Pharmacy, Natural Grocers, Albertsons, Safeway and Petco. When it looks to expand into a new market, it can immediately plug in with its existing partner grocery stores and roll out its services. 

"It's making sure we have the supply," Murdock said. 

Instacart also monitors the requests they get from areas that don't yet have the service. According to the company, Instacart received "an overwhelming volume of requests" to expand in Montana.

Natural Grocers, based in Denver, has partnered with Instacart for years, and the store's customers have been happy with the service, said spokeswoman Amber Dutra.

"Instacart is not a huge part of our business, but it is very important to some of our community members," she said. "Some of our customers have physical challenges that make in-store shopping difficult. Instacart bridges this gap so good-for-you food, quality dietary supplements and more are available to anyone with just a few clicks online."

Users sign up for the service online or on their smartphones. From there they select a store, the items they want to buy and the time frame in which they want their order delivered, from one hour to five days in advance. 

At that point, an Instacart shopper accepts the order and heads out to do the shopping, delivering the order within the requested time frame. 

Users pay a $5.99 delivery fee for grocery orders more than $35. They also have the option of paying for a monthly or yearly fee for unlimited same-day deliveries at $14.99 per month or $149 per year. 

While other app-based delivery services like PostMates and UberRUSH have yet to land in Billings, it's still a competitive market. 

Walmart, which declined to comment on its Billings stores, launched its new pickup service this summer at its West End and Heights locations. The groceries aren't delivered; instead customers use the Walmart app to order their goods, which are then collected by Walmart employees and taken to a designated pickup area in the parking lot. 

Customers are notified when the order is ready to pick up.

Instacart and its shoppers make their money through delivery fees and its store partnerships.

For example, when ordering from Costco, users are notified that "prices are higher than your local warehouse. Costco members also do not earn 2 percent executive reward on Instacart."

Rather than using a mark-up, Natural Grocers pays a service fee. 

"We decided to sell online through Instacart at the same price that our customers will find in the store — sale prices and all — making it an affordable choice for people who have a hard time traveling to the supermarket," Dutra said.

For that reason it's been a good partnership, she said. The advantage to Natural Grocers is that it expands the store's reach and makes it easier for its customers to shop. 

"We expect Billings residents will also find Instacart to be a convenient service," Dutra said.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.