Five days a week, Ryan Hartson scours the picked-over aisles of Mariano’s Fresh Market in Chicago to fill grocery delivery orders for Instacart. He clocks in for his shift exactly on the hour — if he’s even five minutes late, he’ll receive a “reliability incident.” Within four minutes he must accept any incoming orders. Any longer and he’ll be kicked off the shift and risk getting an incident. Three incidents in a week and he’s at risk of termination.

“It’s a very easy job to lose,” Hartson said.

To avoid missing orders, Hartson schedules his bathroom visits — after four hours of work, the app notifies him that he has earned a 10-minute paid break. Meanwhile, Instacart managers use the app to see if he’s running behind on his orders. The app also tracks Hartson’s customer communications, automatically searching for specific terms to ensure he’s using Instacart’s preferred script. If he doesn’t, his metrics will take another hit.

Metrics define the experience of Instacart’s part-time workforce. Measured weekly for employees such as Harston is the number of reliability incidents; the number of seconds it takes to pick each item; and the percentage of customers with whom they correspond. Some former and current employees say 5% to 20% of shoppers in a store can be fired weekly.

Even in the data-driven tech world, Instacart stands out for its metrics-oriented culture, interviews with more than 30 current and former employees as well as documents and recordings reviewed by the Los Angeles Times reveal. This drive toward productivity helps Instacart’s profit margins, a vital step for a start-up that recorded its first-ever monthly profit in April, as the coronavirus pandemic heightened demand for grocery delivery.

Instacart says it has eased enforcement of certain metrics during the pandemic, but shoppers say company policies often ignore the realities of the job, leaving them in constant fear of termination over things out of their control.

Instacart says it evaluates shoppers on more than just speed and efficiency. Natalia Montalvo, the company’s director of shopper engagement and communications, said the in-store shopper role was built on the premise of “flexibility, efficiency, innovation, and customer service.”

“Efficiency and fulfillment of customer orders in a timely manner is important,” Montalvo said, “but it’s just one of many factors we look at in our overall business health and growth relative to other contributors,” such as revenue derived from advertising for and partnering with consumer brands.

Founded in 2012 among a cohort of venture-backed start-ups purporting to revolutionize inconvenient tasks by making them on-demand, Instacart’s early success was measured by scale. The San Francisco company expanded rapidly into new markets by enticing workers by turning a weekly errand, a trip to the supermarket, into a moneymaking opportunity. Customers marveled at the ease of use.

“In the early days of Instacart, we were losing money on every single delivery, and we were growing fast,” chief executive Apoorva Mehta said in 2018. “That’s not a good combination.”

But it’s one familiar to many gig economy companies, including Uber and Lyft, which have tried to stem losses by raising rates, lowering pay, and rolling out new services. To make the unit economics work at Instacart, Mehta and the company realized they needed to better manage the primary cost to the company: labor.

Instacart relies on a combination of in-store hourly employees and contractors; in-store shoppers pick groceries, while contractors can choose to pick and deliver or just deliver. In-store employees receive minimum wage and work a maximum of 29 hours a week — just under the 30-hour cutoff to qualify for employee health care.

Core to bringing down the costs “associated with the wages that we pay for the picking and delivery,” as Mehta put it, was speed — time spent finding a specific item — and efficiency — time spent between orders, in line, loading the trunk, and getting an order to a customer’s home.

“As we build more volume, we build density,” Mehta said. “With density, each delivery takes less time.... Each minute we save on each delivery is 25 cents in gross margins. When we save that money, we can give that money back to the customer so it’s cheaper for the customer to make an order on Instacart.”

Facing pushback from shoppers and corporate employees for its singular focus on speed, the company in 2018 said it would begin to incorporate quality metrics alongside speed and efficiency metrics

”Over the last few years, we’ve implemented new tools, resources and guidelines to help shoppers deliver the best customer experience possible,” Montalvo said in a statement. “To achieve this, we expect in-store shoppers to show up for scheduled hours, pick high-quality items, complete orders in a timely manner and provide excellent customer service.”

As the coronavirus crisis flooded Instacart with a surge of new customers, the company added more than 300,000 hourly and contract shoppers and said it would stop penalizing those who fall short of speed and efficiency requirements. Shoppers such as Hartson, however, continue to be graded on other metrics and could still face reprimand for reliability incidents. And they still receive regular reports on whether they meet speed and efficiency targets.

“They’re tracking all this data,” Hartson said. “Will they go back and use this as a pretense to fire people?”

Montalvo said such data is for now “purely a personal guide.”

“We believe it’s important that shoppers are aware and understand the significant role they play in delivering a great customer experience, which is why we focus on the details related to each order,” Montalvo said.

Close management of worker efficiency has become a hallmark of the on-demand tech industry. Companies including Amazon — where Mehta worked on fulfillment systems before launching Instacart — famously police worker productivity in their warehouses.

But compared with a fulfillment warehouse, a grocery store is an unpredictable place. At any moment in any store, the avocados might be overripe, the organic carrots sold out, the fancy olive oil moved from its normal location to a new display. Any of these factors can slow down an in-store shopper and harm their metrics.

It’s not easy to navigate a grocery store under a tight deadline — as anyone who has viewed Supermarket Sweep, a recently revived game show, can attest. Some in-store shoppers, including Jonathan McNelis, say it’s not a far cry from their job.

“You can literally feel the pressure of time counting down as you are shopping, trying to weave through the aisles,” he said.