Asha Sharma, COO of Instacart, on building technology to power the grocery industry

Instacart is North America’s leading grocery technology company and works with grocers and retailers to transform how people shop. Instacart partners with more than 1,000 national, regional, and local retail banners to facilitate online shopping, delivery, and pickup services from more than 75,000 stores across more than 13,000 cities in the US and Canada.

While Instacart might be best known for online grocery, the company has evolved into a platform that’s helping retailers and brands connect with people in new ways.

We spoke with Asha Sharma, Instacart’s chief operating officer, about how Instacart is innovating with retailers, the scalability of their partnership with Stripe, and the power of inspiration on their platform.

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You spent much of your career in marketing and product at companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Porch. Can you explain your career path from there to COO of Instacart?

At Microsoft, I focused primarily on product marketing, which introduced me to the power of solving users’ problems with technology and how that can also drive growth. This was very similar to my role as chief marketing officer and later as chief operating officer at Porch, where I was focused on using technology to bring the home improvement market online and making it easier to take care of your home. I then moved to Facebook. While there are certainly different relationships and partners to collaborate with in product compared to marketing, I ended up learning how in any function, growth and success always start with the customer and your mission.

Now, at Instacart, I get to focus on using technology to ensure the future of grocery belongs to the retailers who started it. In doing this, we’ve been able to have impressive business results and continue to innovate towards our mission.

Instacart grew at a record pace during the pandemic. How has that experience affected the way you meet consumers’ needs?

The pandemic spurred a significant change in online grocery shopping, with many people trying it for the first time out of necessity, and then continuing to use it because it was a better way to shop for them. It created a new resting heart rate for the industry: Online grocery adoption jumped from about 3% before COVID-19 to 10% in 2021. The long term adoption trend remains, and by 2026 we expect as much as 35% of grocery transactions could happen online.

Instacart historically was about delivering same-day grocery orders from a single retailer. With more shopping online, we saw that people were turning to Instacart for all of their grocery needs – so we re-architected our entire product to serve multiple use cases like delivery in minutes, late night, next-day, and added additional services like pickup, alcohol, deals, meals, and retailers outside of grocery, such as home improvement, pets, beauty, and office supplies.

While online grocery is continuing to grow, people still want to shop in stores. They’re looking for the same personal convenience and personalisation wherever and however they choose to shop, which is why we’re partnering with retailers to build technology that connects online and in-store, and drives affordability and accessibility for households across the US and Canada.

Can you give us an idea of the top few things your team is working on these days?

Nearly everyone buys groceries, which means we have the opportunity – and responsibility – to serve a wide range of customers, including people from all income levels. It’s very important to us that we’re not just a service for the affluent, and we’re proud that our customers closely reflect the overall US population.

In particular, we place a big focus on providing even more ways for people to save time and money. With Instacart, people can shop from many different retailers, including more than 4,500 value store locations and more than 325 retail banners that offer in-store prices. We make it easy to find savings and deals from retailers and brands, we offer flexible payment options, and customers can save by using fulfilment options like “no rush” delivery or curbside pickup. In addition, Instacart+ members enjoy unlimited free delivery, reduced service fees, and exclusive benefits. And, we pioneered the EBT SNAP retailer onboarding process to expand access to online grocery by allowing people to use their benefits online.

Behind the scenes, we work with retailers and brands on ways to drive efficiencies within their operations using technology like artificial intelligence. We acquired Eversight a few months ago to do just that. Eversight’s AI-powered pricing and promotions platform helps unlock customer savings and revenue growth for retailers and brands through automated, continuous testing of new prices and offers at scale, online and in stores – benefitting retailers and their customers alike.

What do you hope Instacart accomplishes over the next few years?

I’ve talked about ways we’re making grocery shopping easier and more affordable, and how we’re partnering with retailers to best serve their customers, and that work rolls up to a bigger mission that motivates us and cuts across everything we do.

Food is central to our lives in so many ways. We nourish our bodies with it and express our love through it. Some of my most cherished memories and relationships have been cultivated over shared meals. Food is key to our communities and our health, and as a company at the centre of people’s relationship with what they eat, we feel deeply motivated to make a positive impact.

We’ve long worked to expand access to healthy food, and we’re building on that foundation through Instacart Health, an initiative that includes product innovations, new partnerships, cutting-edge research, and policy advocacy. Instacart Health is focused on three key themes where we believe we can make the most difference: nutrition security, making healthier choices easier, and food-as-medicine.

For example, Fresh Funds lets organisations – such as non-profits, employers, insurance companies, or health systems – give people funds for nutritious food from grocery retailers on our platform to increase nutrition access and incentivise healthy habits. A range of public and private sector organisations are piloting the use of Fresh Funds – including those that allow healthcare providers to write individually-tailored food recommendations for patients, and Partnership for a Healthier America, a leading non-profit working to transform the food landscape in pursuit of health equity.

Another example is Care Carts, which lets you order groceries on behalf of someone else – whether you’re a healthcare clinician delivering groceries for a patient’s prescribed meal plan or a caregiver who wants to send groceries to a friend or family member from afar.

We’ve also introduced a number of ways to surface relevant, expert-backed information and inspiration in the Instacart App or on retailers’ websites or apps – and even in stores – to help people make choices that fit their personal health needs.

This is a long-term focus for us, and my hope is that Instacart can empower the industry to improve health.

How important are Instacart shoppers and how do you think about supporting them?

Our shopper community is incredibly important to us. Instacart shoppers connect households with the essential items they need to thrive.

Shopping for Instacart is quite different from delivering meals from a restaurant or giving rides to the airport. Nearly half of the time spent working for Instacart is spent in stores carefully selecting items for a customer, and we are always thinking about how we can improve the experience for our shoppers – hundreds of thousands of them.

Earlier this year, we made a number of commitments to our shoppers: support while shopping and beyond, ingredients to earn on your terms, a community built on best intent, and recognition and rewards for the best of the bunch.

We’ve rolled out live phone support and in-store navigation to make shopping easier; peak earning days, tip protection, and faster access to earnings to improve flexible earnings opportunities; a redesigned ratings system, ways for shoppers to leave feedback on their shopping experience, and more access to relevant information to build a stronger community between shoppers and customers; and our Cart Star rewards programme that celebrates shoppers who consistently deliver outstanding service.

Supporting shoppers will always be a key area of focus and we’ll continue to roll out updates and improvements. We have teams at Instacart that are dedicated to building tools and programmes that benefit our shoppers.

What are some other ways Instacart is improving the customer experience?

Instacart helps people all across the US and Canada find over a billion items from over a thousand retail banners across tens of thousands of stores, and connects them with hundreds of thousands of shoppers who shop on their behalf – 24/7. With more than a decade of experience serving customers at scale, we have a unique view of how people shop and an opportunity to build personal and inspirational shopping experiences in partnership with retailers and brands.

Personalisation includes everything from remembering your favourite stores and items, to helping you collaborate with family members to build a cart throughout the week, to offering custom recommendations, shelves, and healthy options based on our past purchases or surfacing information that’s most relevant based on your preferences.

We’re working to create a more inspiring experience with integrations that let you buy ingredients for recipes found across the web or on social (like the latest TikTok trend) with a touch of a finger, surfacing helpful bundles of items – like lunchbox essentials or game day snacks, or showing you deals on your favourite items.

We’re doing this in the Instacart App, and helping retailers offer more personalised, inspirational experiences on their own e-commerce websites and apps through Instacart Platform. And, we believe that personalisation and inspiration shouldn’t be relegated to online shopping –we’re helping bring them to brick-and-mortar stores through our Connected Stores offerings.

How does Instacart remain accessible to everyone, even those who are less tech savvy?

It differs by segment. For example, during the pandemic there were a lot of seniors who wanted to use Instacart but weren't comfortable with computers. In response, we launched a senior support service line to help seniors with account creation, setting up their first order, and so on.

I touched on our work to make it easier to use EBT SNAP online and in stores. We help over 70 retail banners across more than 8,000 stores accept EBT SNAP payments online, reaching a majority of the over 30 million people experiencing nutrition insecurity in the United States. We’re pleased to announce our commitment to work with the USDA to further increase EBT SNAP access – with a goal of expanding EBT SNAP payment access to all Instacart grocery partners by 2030.

Continued growth and diversification of our customer base over time means we’re building services that resonate with people of different backgrounds across the country, but the work to improve accessibility on our platform will never be done. It’s core to our mission.

Where do you think Stripe and Instacart are uniquely aligned in terms of our marketplace focus and values?

Stripe is building payments infrastructure for the internet, and Instacart is building grocery infrastructure for the world. There is a lot of overlap in our goals. Ultimately, both companies want to enable essential experiences and services in a connected world. For us, that means empowering retailers and brands, large and small. Stripe helps us serve our retail and brand partners, who have diverse needs, and ultimately power seamless experiences for end customers.

How has Stripe helped Instacart in supporting its overall goals?

There are a few key reasons why I think our partnership has gone so well. The first is Stripe’s reliability. In many cases, customers depend on our service to feed their families. We cannot afford downtime and neither can our retailers and partners, so reliability is key.

Stripe has also scaled with us. The pandemic created a lot of demand for our service in a short amount of time. Stripe helped us serve our retailers and customers as we all worked together to rise to the occasion.

Finally, there’s a compliance factor. Alcohol delivery, as an example, is a very important part of our business. Stripe has allowed us to expand this part of our business in a compliant and very customer-centric way. I could keep going, but to sum it up, Stripe has helped us grow and strengthen our business, and we’re grateful for the partnership. We’re excited to continue to grow together.

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