At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ehud Sopher, a screenwriter and director based in New York City, found himself without a job. The global health crisis had shut down the city -- and the entertainment industry along with it.
But then, Sopher found Instacart, a grocery delivery smartphone app, and thought he hit the jackpot: flexible hours and quick cash while working on personal projects to hone his craft.
"I felt like I found a hack to our economy, and I'm like, ‘Wow, you don't have to work a 9 to 5,’ and you can do these contract gigs where you shop for people and make $25 an hour,” Sopher said.
Sopher became what Instacart calls a “shopper” -- he would log onto the app on any given day, at any time, see customer orders for groceries, select the ones he wants to fulfill, head to the customer’s preferred grocery store, shop and deliver the items to the person’s doorstep. It was easy enough that Sopher would sometimes make hundreds of dollars a day. But just as he was getting the hang of it, Sopher said, he noticed something changed.
“Within the month that I signed my new lease, I got my first 4-star rating, and I wasn't seeing orders that matched why I got into Instacart in the first place for a few weeks," he told ABC News.
Sopher doesn’t know why he got the 4-star rating but suspects it was from a customer whose items were out of stock at the store. He said the customer did not respond when he repeatedly messaged her to ask whether she wanted replacements. In the end, he refunded her money and delivered the groceries he was able to get.
That one rating, Sopher said, dropped his overall customer rating, which according to Instacart, is an average of the last 100 deliveries made.
Shoppers with higher ratings get first dibs on delivery batches, meaning anything less than a perfect score and the batches you can access are fewer and will likely yield lower pay. Some critics call it "ratings prison."
Sopher said when it first happened to him, he didn't know what the 4-star rating would mean for his income.
“I just assumed it was like anything else in life ... if you have like a 3.9 GPA, you're a really good student. If you're a 4.86 Uber driver, you're probably a good driver. So, I just assumed it was like that. I'm like, ‘Oh, that's unfortunate, but I'm still at 4.96. But then I wasn't seeing orders for a while,” Sopher said.
In Ohio, Sharita Williams, who has been an Instacart shopper for two years, said she also remembers something similar happening to her after a less-than-perfect customer rating.
"Versus making $150 a day, I would maybe make, maybe, $70, $80 or you'll see less batches coming in instead of the normal 6, 7, 10 [orders],” she said.
For shoppers who rely on the service as their only or main source of income, anything less than a 5-star average rating can cost hundreds of dollars in earnings each week, making it hard to make ends meet. Some have taken to YouTube to document their frustrations.
In a May 20 video posted to a YouTube channel called Instacart Dude Adventures, Twisters and 101's, the shopper who runs the channel tells his subscribers, “3 stars and I go from making $200 to $250 a day to nothing.” In another video posted Dec. 5 to the Chanty Marie YouTube channel, the influencer takes her viewers along for her shopping and deliveries. At one point, she tells them, “Now I have a bad rating, and I can’t get any batches.”
Sopher himself has made a documentary about his and other Instacart shoppers' struggles.
“You're putting your heart, your energy to shop for somebody, and just because they’re in a bad mood, they’ll give you a low rating, and it's downhill from there,” one shopper said in the documentary, “Four Stars.”
“It’s just unfair. We’re working very hard, and customers rate us very poorly, and they’re doing it viciously and it’s unacceptable,” another shopper in the film said.
Recently more and more of Instacart’s shoppers have been speaking out, calling the rating system “unfair.” Combined, thousands of people have signed on to different online petitions demanding that Instacart immediately change how the ratings are calculated.
The biggest frustrations, shoppers say, include not knowing which customer left them a bad rating and sometimes not even getting an explanation about what they did to deserve it, though Instacart encourages customers to leave feedback. Shoppers also say the system mostly assumes the customer is always right and sometimes they get a bad rating for circumstances beyond their control, such as a store not having an item the customer wants.
“You know, I'm out here hustling. I'm trying to provide good customer service, and it's not my fault there's not an item in stock,” Williams explained. “I don't have control if the tomatoes are bad, and sometimes all the bananas are bad. So, it's a lot of things that are not your fault, and then you get rated a bad score.”
In 2020, as the pandemic was raging, Instacart said it suspended the rating system, seemingly because of its negative impact on shoppers’ earnings. But as of June, the ratings are back, supposedly rewarding hardworking shoppers and weeding out those who don’t always get it right.
Clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Judy Ho told ABC News the negative impact of rating systems can be detrimental to a worker’s mental health and behavior.
“I think the toll can be enormous especially because you feel like you have to live and die by this rating system and that it could cost you your job, your pay, it could cost you tips, and that can cause a person to do some really unsafe behaviors like driving fast and erratically to try to deliver quickly or on time,” she said. "I also think it’s much harder for them to actually focus to do their job in a quality way, because they’re so stressed out about changing that rating."
A spokesperson for Instacart said in a statement that the company has been gathering feedback from shoppers over the past few months.
“We’ve heard from shoppers time and again that they value providing a great experience for customers, and they want to be recognized for their efforts," the spokesperson said. "We're always working to provide a consistently fair and reliable experience for shoppers, and we look forward to continuing to evolve our systems and processes to deliver the best offering for shoppers."
The company pointed to measures like deleting a shopper’s worst rating after 100 deliveries, saying those steps help ensure the “customer rating system is fair and accurate.”
But “there is such a small margin for error," Sopher said. "And, of course, you strive to be perfect with this job, but we're flawed human beings. And, just like anything in life, there's going to be an error along the way, and it shouldn't result in you losing your income."
“If the customer doesn't respond when you need to replace the item ... you can't sit in a store for an hour waiting for a customer to respond,” she said. “And some customers are upset with that ... so then they'll give you a lower rating.”
Instacart said some of those issues are resolved in favor of the shopper and that a recent survey shows 75% of shoppers feel that the customer ratings system is fair. “Similarly, 71% of shoppers believe the customer ratings system accurately reflects the level of service they provide," a spokesperson said.
Some shoppers, though, have resorted to emotional pleas, begging customers to withhold tips instead of leaving a rating that could haunt them for weeks. Sopher has since left the app because of his frustrations and also because of car issues -- though he said he might return.
“I do believe there should be some way to hold shoppers accountable,” Sopher explained. “You're paying for a service, and you need to filter out any shoppers who are untrustworthy or who are constantly messing up the job.”
But, he added, “Customers don't know how harmful even a 4-star rating is, so the average person might think a 4-star rating is a good thing."
“Oh, my gosh!” Instacart customer Dia Rucco exclaimed as ABC’s Faith Abubey relayed shoppers’ frustrations with the ratings system.
“That makes me feel bad,” said Rucco, who used to spend Saturday mornings at the grocery store and now mostly uses Instacart instead.
Rucco said she couldn’t have appreciated the grocery delivery service more during the pandemic.
“It's just kind of been a lifesaver,” she said. “Even now that things are opening, it's just so much easier to get groceries done during the week instead of trying to fit it in on a weekend with kids in the house.”
Rucco said she didn't realize that as a customer, she had so much power over the livelihood of the Instacart shoppers and now that she knows, she supports overhauling the rating system.
“I definitely understand that it's a business,” she said about Instacart. “Take care of the customer. I get all those things, but I also think you have to take care of the employee.”