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The meteoric rise of Instacart

President Nilam Ganenthiran takes a look back at the early days of the pandemic and reveals plans for the future
Photo: Instacart

Predicting the future is inherently difficult, even if you work in a futuristic industry like online grocery. But only nine months ago, Instacart president Nilam Ganenthiran did exactly that.

In a not-much-noticed press release published by the company on Jan. 14 — before COVID-19 would change the world — Ganenthiran proclaimed that 2020 would be “the year for online grocery pickup.”

Eight weeks later, the U.S. federal government declared a national emergency over the pandemic, and everyone was typing “Can you get coronavirus at the grocery store?” into Google. Suddenly, tens of millions of Americans wanted to buy groceries online and were waking up at 3 a.m. to find a grocery pickup (or delivery) slot on In the eyes of consumers and grocers, the company’s grocery e-commerce service had morphed from niche to necessity. And with so much demand, Instacart was going to face operational challenges more severe than even Ganenthiran could have ever prophesized.

“It’s crazy to think about this, but in a two-to-four week period, we experienced the adoption of grocery e-commerce that we were expecting to see in a two-to-four year period,” Ganenthiran said. “We saw a 500% jump in order volume. Almost overnight, we saw basket sizes expand 35% and Instacart become a lifeline for people across North America looking to get their groceries and goods delivered. We saw things that normally are always in stock — toilet paper, bottled water — just disappear from store shelves. And we had over 500 retailers, across nearly 40,000 retail store locations, more than half of North American grocery e-commerce basically, looking at us and saying, ‘Hey, you got to be there and show up for our customers.’”

Fast-forward eight months. Today, Ganenthiran and the rest of the Instacart executive team is laser-focused on leveraging the growth opportunity before them, and on building a future vision to help the grocery industry thrive during the next pandemic and beyond.

Wait! There's more. Head over to our sister site to learn how Instacart worked to fill soaring demand during the pandemic, its plans for the future, and a look at the most popular search terms on Instacart in 2020.

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