Quick: What would you do if someone sent you a spreadsheet with 430 million entries? Freak out and pretend you never got it? Or jump in and start organizing it?
Four hundred thirty million is the whopping number of items that online grocery app Instacart has in its catalog. Fortunately, they also have Laurentia Romaniuk, the senior product manager overseeing this massive catalog, whose team is responsible for sorting, updating, and cross-referencing all that data.
For big e-commerce sellers, databases are the behind-the-curtain magicians. And at Instacart, this hidden-in-plain-sight feature powers a platform that’s revolutionizing how we shop for groceries. Romaniuk and her team are the brains behind the magic—here’s how they do it.
By the Numbers
The Instacart idea is straightforward: Select your favorite local grocery store and load up your virtual cart; an Instacart shopper then goes to that store, puts your selections into an actual cart, and delivers them to you within your selected timeframe.
The premise may be simple, but the logistics are mind-boggling, even before adding in the real-life shopper component. Besides needing smart people to create sophisticated technology, making the whole system work at scale requires having a lot of partners—and offering a lot of products. That’s why Instacart works with more than 400 grocery chains and 30,000-plus individual stores, each of which carries an average of 35,000 items. Voilà: 430 million distinct products.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, since each product comes with tons of data to assist the shopper. “Take Oreos,” says Romaniuk. “We track all the sizes, weights, flavors, and prices, and we list all the nutritional information, as well as which stores have it in stock. But every product has different requirements. Is the beef grass-fed? Is the pancake mix gluten-free? In all, we’re updating around 5 billion individual data points per night,” she says. In response to the surge of demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, Instacart is getting more frequent inventory updates from partners to more accurately track what’s in stock that day, and implemented a cart maximum policy for certain products, such as toilet paper.
A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Bananas
Early on in Instacart’s existence, a customer bought 10 bananas through the app. But at the store, the shopper referred to the associated image—a bunch of bananas. So that’s what was delivered: 10 bunches of bananas. (The customer and Instacart worked it out.)
Accurate photos are essential to Instacart’s operation—and customer satisfaction—and it’s up to Romaniuk and her team to ensure that some 5 million images match up with the right products. As if that wasn’t head-spinning enough, photos come from multiple sources. Some are provided by manufacturers. Others may come from private-label stores. And for items like meat, fish, and produce, Instacart sometimes photographs them in-house. Blending all these disparate streams seamlessly and accurately is no small task.
Keeping It Fresh
Here’s one of Instacart’s smartest features: When a product is running low at the store, the app knows—and suggests a replacement if the shopper finds that the original choice is sold out. (The shopper can also text the customer, but this minimizes the back-and-forth.) To make it work, each store connects its inventory to the Instacart system and sends updates at least once a day. And yes, it’s up to Romaniuk and her team to ensure that’s happening.
Making it especially complicated is that the threshold for “running low” can vary widely by product, as well as seasonality and even time of day. And while sophisticated machine learning (not Romaniuk, for once) helps determine those thresholds, the next step—figuring out an acceptable replacement item—is part of her job. That means creating relationships between those 430 million listings, like a different size of the same cottage cheese, for example, or a different flavor of the same brand of ice cream.
Built for This
Romaniuk comes from strong data-geek stock—her mom is an academic librarian. She never saw herself following suit, but that changed while she was working as a college recruiter. She noticed that prospective students were missing document-submission deadlines; after a little digging, she discovered the reason wasn’t laziness, but a flaw in how the computer system organized the data. “My mom said, ‘That’s what a librarian does,’” said Romaniuk. “I was hooked, and I set my sights on a job managing huge databases.”
Armed with a Masters of Library and Information Science, Romaniuk went to work for Restoration Hardware, another product-heavy company. But the lure of helping to build the world’s largest online grocery catalog was too appealing. Today, Romaniuk doesn’t just manage Instacart’s huge database: She moonlights as an in-house trend spotter and studies search and purchasing data for trends to help keep the company ahead of the curve. It’s a process that helped her identify two trending products before they became hugely popular: LaCroix sparkling water and Halo Top ice cream. And what’s trending now? “Plant-based foods like the Impossible Burger,” says Romaniuk, “and hard seltzers like White Claw.”
Evolving the Revolution
Innovating the Instacart experience also means thinking about how people shop. Walking the aisles of a grocery store is, of course, very different than swiping and tapping on your phone. Buy a can of Campbell’s soup online and you know exactly what you’ll get. But how do you order cantaloupe at your preferred point of ripeness? Or a steak with just the right amount of marbling?
But when it comes to the overall grocery shopping experience, the goal isn’t re-creation—it’s improvement. That means thinking beyond “digital aisles” and creating new relationships between all of the products. “We’re going to start taking customers through the ‘story’ of a meal,” says Romaniuk. “For example, one person wants fish for dinner, while their spouse needs peanut-free food. How can you start with that and plan a night’s meal, then move on to another story for the next night?”
Of course, that’s just one type of Instacart customer. There are also singles restocking the staples, big families planning ahead, and roommates filling up their group carts. And keeping them all happy begins with those 430 million items in the catalog. It’s exactly the kind of challenge Romaniuk’s been waiting for.