Skip to main content

Instacart said this month it would add 10 new retailers in Canada to its platform, including Metro and the privately held Giant Tiger.Rosem Morton/The New York Times News Service

Being a condo dweller in downtown Toronto, I’ve been bombarded by grocery-delivery ads in my mailbox. Every one has been offering some form of credit for signing up, with Ninja Delivery being the epitome of generosity – straight up giving $20 worth with no strings attached.

So, naturally, not only did I sign up, I made my girlfriend do it as well. We got $40 worth of free groceries, and they were indeed delivered in 10 minutes as promised.

Grocery delivery isn’t new, but it surged amid the pandemic. One New York startup in February made 1,600-per-cent more money than from the same month last year.

And those sign-up credits by Ninja remind me of the early days of Uber Technologies Inc. UBER-N, when it gave out free rides for referrals – losing money to carve out market share – which is basically the playbook of venture-capital-backed startups. Indeed, such private-equity investing in rapid delivery amounted to US$9.7-billion around the world in 2021, according to the data company PitchBook.

But how does a regular person bet on such a trend, I wondered. Or – given that many COVID-19 darling companies such as Peloton Interactive Inc. PTON-Q and Zoom Video Communications Inc. ZM-Q are down several times their pandemic peaks – how does a regular person bet against such a trend?

Ninja Delivery itself is out. Like the hordes of those venture-capital-backed startups, the company, based in Waterloo, Ont., is not publicly traded. In fact, it doesn’t even list any information on who’s funding it and didn’t respond when I asked.

The answer is San Francisco’s Instacart, which said on Wednesday it had filed confidentially for an initial public offering. Bloomberg reported that the potential IPO could occur as early as this year.

Instacart might be well known to those who have been watching the sector, but what really struck me was how rare that option is.

Existing publicly listed companies that do grocery delivery do not have that as their core business. They either primarily deliver a single-serving, ready-made meal (DoorDash Inc. DASH-N or Just Eat Takeaway.com N.V. JTKWY, which owns SkipTheDishes and GrubHub, for example); operate brick-and-mortar stores (Walmart Inc. WMT-N); or they do something else altogether, such as Uber Technologies Inc. or Amazon.com Inc. AMZN-Q

If you trade the stocks of one of those companies, you’re really making bets in a whole other field, whether it is ride-hailing or online shopping. Even meal delivery isn’t the same as grocery delivery. Neither are meal kits provided by the likes of Good Food Market Corp.

To really target this trend of grocery delivery, what we’re looking for is a publicly listed company that does only that.

There are some in China, such as the grocery services Missfresh and Dingdong, recently listed in the United States. But China is a whole different world with different trends, with a tech sector in disfavour with a powerful central government and just general regulatory turbulence and uncertainty – we shall not go there.

That’s where Instacart comes in. It’s not only a pure-play grocery delivery company that might soon be publicly listed, but one in a market and jurisdiction that is more familiar.

There are some bullish developments in that the company has been expanding. Instacart said this month it would add 10 new retailers in Canada to its platform, including Metro Inc. MRU-T and the privately held Giant Tiger. Like working from home, maybe the idea of not visiting the grocery store is here to stay, in some form.

The caveat, though, is that Instacart has slashed its valuation by 40 per cent to US$24-billion and, separately, asked Uber and DoorDash whether they want to buy it. Its co-founder and chief executive has left the job.

Maybe the fact that so many companies are essentially paying customers to use their services – as with all the flyers I receive – is pointing to market saturation. With much of the Western world returning to normal, maybe so will our shopping habits (even for those of us still working from home).

The point isn’t so much that Instacart is going to be wildly successful. It’s more so that, in an emerging industry, a pure-play company like Instacart is a rare beast. It’s a bit like Beyond Meat, whose closest competitor is privately held. To an investor, it is a proxy for a trend.

If you are skeptical about the future of all this grocery-delivery business, maybe you can bet against this trend by shorting Instacart’s stock when the IPO comes.

Be smart with your money. Get the latest investing insights delivered right to your inbox three times a week, with the Globe Investor newsletter. Sign up today.