Pricing oddities and other weirdness has long been the name of the game at Target. They’re somewhat famous for charging more for items that are “on sale” or charging a higher unit price for larger packages. Their habit of doing weird things like refrigerating bags of Doritos, displaying confusing signs, offering up bizarre substitutions for out-of-stock items, and raising prices to try to get rid of things are all well-documented over at Consumerist, the former Internet publication operated by Consumer Reports. If you shop at Target and have been paying attention, you no doubt see examples of this craziness almost every visit to the store. Target math is all over the place (no, really), and now that they’re trying to take on Amazon with their new Target Restock offering, the insanity has spilled over to the web.

We do a lot of online shopping. A lot. Anyone who knows me has a pretty good idea how much I like grocery stores, and historically I haven’t been quick to turn down a trip to the supermarket, but over the past year or so Graham and I have ordered probably 75% of our groceries and other household goods through services such as Instacart (referral link), Amazon Prime Now and Whole Foods, and Kroger ClickList Delivery because it’s worth the few extra bucks to not have to leave home, deal with traffic and long checkout lines, and then still have to lug everything to the house.

When we were preparing for our vacation to Cape Cod, I figured I’d put in an order with Target to have some snacks and drinks delivered on the day we were scheduled to arrive. After a roughly 11-hour drive, the last thing I wanted to do was go to the grocery store.

According to Target.com, this is how Restock is supposed to work.
According to Target.com, this is how Restock is supposed to work.

If you’re not familiar with Target Restock, it is to Target.com what Prime Pantry is to Amazon: a separate offering of the same items, priced similarly but not always the same as the stores or main Target web site, where you can buy non-refrigerated grocery items and basic household goods like paper towels, cleaning products, and pet supplies. Orders placed by 7 PM are supposed to arrive next-day, and they’re shipped free for anyone with a Target REDcard.

Restock uses this weird, abstract idea of a “Restock box” and items display what percentage of that box has been filled. They make a big deal out of the box concept, explaining that one box is roughly equivalent to the capacity of a traditional Target shopping cart (which isn’t even a close approximation). It’s all kind of pointless, though, since there’s no requirement to fill any minimum portion of a box, nor anything stopping you from filling more than one box per order. I could start an order, toss a pack of gum in there and be done with it.

I’ve ordered through Target Restock twice before and both times the orders were submitted well before the 7 PM cutoff but they were still shipped late. Target did send e-mails letting me know the orders would be delayed, and they gave me a small window of opportunity to cancel the order. Unfortunately, that window was less than a half-hour long, and each time it’s started at about 5:30 in the morning. Not helpful.

Based on past experiences, I wasn’t really all that surprised when things went south with my Cape Cod order.

The order was submitted around 3 PM Friday afternoon, four hours ahead of the cutoff for next-day delivery. Saturday morning I wake up to an e-mail letting me know my order will be delayed with a new estimated delivery date of Monday. Since we got a late start and wouldn’t be arriving until early Sunday morning, and there were family members already up here with some food and drinks on hand, it wasn’t a huge deal, but I was still upset that Target dropped the ball again.

I chatted with Target’s customer service early Saturday morning. I was told only that the window of opportunity to change or cancel the order had been closed, and the agent was unwilling to do anything to make the situation right, other than offer a $5 Target gift card. That, after explaining to me that the order was processed after 7 PM and thus is ineligible for next-day delivery. Never mind that the site says orders placed by 7 PM would qualify, apparently none of that matters. I asked for a supervisor, and was told I’d need to wait a couple hours and then call a toll-free number to hunt down someone in charge. Their customer service folks seem to have no way to escalate an issue.

So, late Saturday afternoon I’m told a Target box has shown up here at the house in Cape Cod. Two of them, actually. That’s kind of weird. I didn’t order that much stuff.

Sunday morning, I get another e-mail from Target, apologizing for the delay, letting me know my new estimated delivery date is still Monday, though when I click on the link to view the order status the web site says Tuesday. By that point I’ve arrived in Cape Cod and I know for a fact I have received everything I ordered.

Monday morning, I get another e-mail, apologizing again, and giving me a new estimated delivery date of Tuesday.

Tuesday morning (guess where this is going!), there’s another e-mail, another apology, and an estimated delivery date of Wednesday. Meanwhile, we’ve already eaten some of the snacks and Graham’s halfway through the 2-liter of Diet Dr. Pepper.

Tuesday afternoon I get an e-mail from Target thanking me for contacting them about my order. It says there’s an issue fulfilling some of the items in the order (even though I’ve already received everything) and they’re sending it over to their tech support folks to figure out what the holdup is.

Wednesday morning, another e-mail, another estimated delivery date: Thursday (today). Shortly thereafter, two more e-mails, letting me know they had to cancel some items from my order. What did they cancel? Everything. A box of cereal and a bag of freeze-dried strawberries was cancelled separately from the rest of the order. The strawberries had shipped separately, for whatever reason. The order notifications reassured me I hadn’t been charged for the cancelled items.

The follow-up e-mail from Target sent Tuesday afternoon, three days after I received the order they still don't realize they've shipped.
The follow-up e-mail from Target sent Tuesday afternoon, three days after I received the order they still don't realize they've shipped.

Was I charged? Who the hell knows? I logged in to my REDcard account and they seem to have no recollection of any of my recent transactions at Target. I’ve got the REDcard debit version and my bank account doesn’t show any activity from Target, though it sometimes takes a few days for them to suck the money out of my account.

I’m thinking there’s a very good chance I won’t get charged. I won’t be upset if I do since I did receive the items. What bothers me though is the overall Restock experience to-date. It leaves a lot to be desired.

Any retailer that wants to become a serious competitor against Amazon needs to compete on all fronts: delivery speed, price, and customer service. Integrated same-day delivery would be nice; it is available in my market through a separate third-party service, Shipt. Pricing is good, though a number of items are noticeably more expensive through Restock than through the normal Target web site. Customer service has a long way to go.

I get late Amazon orders all the time. I chat with Amazon, two minutes later I’ve got a small credit, refund, or re-ship depending on the situation. They’re sincerely apologetic and escalate freely. The second-level agents at Amazon have always been forthcoming about the situation and many have outright said stuff like let’s stop making excuses and start making this right. And they do.

Target probably still doesn’t realize these items have left their warehouse. For a company that requires a college degree for positions as low as department managers (which itself is insane) you’d think they wouldn’t be as inept.

A number of years ago, Consumerist declared Target is crazy. Despite attempts to explain it away the retailer still seems to be plagued with problems (don’t get me started on the giant red baskets they’re blocking the aisles with these days). I do like Target, but they have a way of driving me nuts. I don’t think I’ll be giving Restock another try anytime soon, regardless of whether I just got $50 worth of food for free. I don’t like having to hunt down someone who can tell me why nobody knows if or when my items will ship, and that’s what Target expects me to do.

Delivery options are limited up here in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Ahold Delhaize-owned Stop & Shop, a close cousin of the Giant (Landover) and Martin’s stores that might be more familiar to my friends, and Shaw’s (owned by Albertson’s/Safeway) both offer delivery. Shaw’s is available through Instacart if you’re willing to tack an additional 10-20% on top of the already-high Safeway-ish prices and New England markup. Stop & Shop’s Peapod looks to be the better deal. Stop & Shop is just a few minutes away in Falmouth, and our grocery needs are so minimal at this point in the trip that there’s no point in putting in an order.

I do want to check out Shaw’s, though. I’ve never been, and since they’re owned by Albertson’s they carry some of the Safeway brand items I like, hopefully including those awesome sunflower kernels seasoned with onion and garlic powders. I buy those a half-dozen bottles at a time whenever I make it to my nearest Safeway, which is about two hours outside of Richmond. Since I’m in the neighborhood I might as well pick some up, along with that delicious Lucerne chocolate milk. Mmm. If only there were some way to order those online and have them shipped to Richmond. That’s a service I’d pay good money for. 🛒