Deliver Me! Inside Philadelphia’s New Convenience Economy
A couple of years back, a city-dwelling friend of mine made a bet with her husband over who would correctly predict the most Oscar winners. The loser, they decided, would be forced to do the winner’s bidding in one specific arena: The victor could demand any sort of food run at any time. Which is how, minutes after arriving home from a weeklong vacation, my friend found herself back outside, tromping testily through piles of snow on a quest for her husband’s favorite apple pie from a bakery several blocks away. It goes without saying that she regretted ever agreeing to such inconvenient stakes.
If she made the same bet now, the bitter pill of loss would go down way more easily. These days, if you want pie on demand, you just ding the Postmates app. Same goes for that late-night run for Baby Advil, or that trek through pelting rain to get your dry cleaning. Ever since Postmates — the 2011 San Fran start-up dubbed the “Uber for the courier industry” — landed in Philly last summer, anyone with Internet access can summon an on-call gofer to fetch anything from Honeygrow smoothies to Trojan condoms (or both) within an hour. Uber was just the beginning.
While Postmates may offer the most diverse range of delivery options, it’s far from the only game in town. At the start of 2015, Philly contained roughly half a dozen businesses whose main mission was simply to ferry food from your favorite restaurants to your door. This represents a seismic shift for urbanites: Goodbye, greasy lo mein takeout; hello, Vetri in my living room! Luxuries that were once the private domain of the filthy rich — grocery delivery! Laundry drop-off! — have been democratized by dozens of start-ups and can be ours, the common man’s, for a generally affordable fee.
Of course, “generally affordable” is in the eye of the spender. “You know what’s funny?” texted my friend — the one who lost the bet — a few weeks ago. “It’s how quickly one becomes immune to the price. It’s Starbucks-ization: Once you’re hooked, you can easily justify paying $4 for coffee. Or $10 for wine delivery.”
That justification is exactly what countless start-ups are banking on right now. It’s also the defining principle of a new microeconomy taking hold here — call it the Convenience Economy. As life gets faster and demands on our time accumulate, the notion of valuing every minute enough to pay someone else to do time-sucking drudge-work or help you live your best life (to borrow an Oprah-ism) feels increasingly less like luxury and more like plain old efficiency. When friends of mine — mostly working parents — talk about their grocery-delivery services, they unironically use words like “lifesaver” and “necessity.”
The Convenience Economy hasn’t just spawned sparkly new start-ups; it’s spurred many of Philly’s brick-and-mortars to deliver us everything from customized wardrobes (Skirt) to eyeglasses (Philly EyeWorks) to craft beer (Hawthornes). They have to, really, if they’re to compete with the national behemoths designed to handpick, deliver and otherwise attend to our every need. Really! Every need. Amazon Prime is bush-league. Want, say, a month’s supply of toys for your toddler, selected by child-development experts? Get a SparkBox subscription! Burning for the latest in doggie treats, or Hermès necktie loaners, or exciting new sex toys chosen just for you and delivered monthly? Hello, BarkBox, FreshNeck and Unbound.
Even if you’re not expecting sex toys, there’s a sort of Wells Fargo Wagon effect at play here — a little buzz you get when the package arrives, even if it’s just milk and eggs. (Yessss! Milk and eggs I didn’t wait in line for!) Trust me, it can be heady stuff. And yet, even as I thrill at every delivery, I can’t shake a vague discomfort with this easy new on-demand world.
But why? I wondered one recent weeknight, feeling a twinge of guilt after placing an Instacart order. Was it, as my friend noted, the alarming ease with which I can throw down extra cash? The fear of looking like I think I’m above obtaining my own Baby Advil? My father’s (imagined) disapproval? The Protestant work ethic irreversibly stamped into my consciousness?
I might have gone on like this for a while, but there was a knock at the door. It was — thrill! — the Instacart girl, with the wine I hadn’t had time to fetch that day. (She did it for $4, plus tip.) I giddily uncorked and settled into my couch, because at the end of the day, existential discomfort is no match for actual comfort. Or for wine.
WELCOME TO CAVIAR! Welcome to Stitch Fix! Welcome to Postmates! Welcome to Blue Apron! As the list of delivery services I’ve signed on for accumulates in my inbox, it seems as though the slow march toward a time when I needn’t leave my house — ever — is gathering momentum. That’s true on a personal level — busy job plus toddler plus iPhone equals prototypical cog in the giant Convenience Economy wheel — but it’s also true in a global sense. Just think: There was the original man, then there was pizza delivery, then there was the Internet, then Netflix, then iPhone, then Uber, and now there’s Postmates and BarkBox.
Like the Summer of Love or Kennedy’s Camelot, the Era of BarkBox et al. feels like the magical product of a bunch of circumstances falling into place at the exact right time. Okay, maybe slightly less magical. But there’s no denying that conditions wouldn’t have allowed companies like UberX or Postmates to thrive at any moment but this. After all, the dot-coms of the late ’90s tried and failed at the on-demand delivery game. I recently talked to Aditya Shah, the general manager of grocery-delivery phenom Instacart. (He has since left the company.) Shah noted that the biggest problem with early delivery iterations was that Internet connections weren’t strong enough or fast enough. Smartphones were the tipping point.
Instacart, another West Coast import — it debuted in Philadelphia in early 2014 — relies entirely on its app and website to (conveniently!) collect orders from customers. In fact, if there’s a poster child for the Convenience Economy, Instacart is probably it. Now operating in 15 metro areas (Philly was number five), the three-year-old company reportedly pulled in $100 million in revenue last year, topping Forbes’s 2015 list of America’s Most Promising Companies. It’s worth about $2 billion right now.
The Instacart model relies on partnerships with popular local food and drink retailers — in Philly, that’s Di Bruno’s, Reading Terminal Market, Super Fresh, Whole Foods, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Fine Wine & Good Spirits and Green Aisle Grocery. A client logs onto the website or app, chooses the stores from which he’d like to shop, creates his shopping list, and picks a delivery time frame. Want your stuff in two hours? You’ll pay a $4 fee. One hour? Six bucks. (Also, some groceries are marked up, depending on the item and store.)
From there, the order is assigned to an Instacart shopper, some of whom are stationed permanently at stores and some of whom are on call. The personal shopper — who’s been through six to eight hours of training — gathers your groceries, calling you should any replacements need to be made, then uses his own car for delivery. You can see the beauty of the model here: Instacart carries very little overhead; local retailers are happy; couriers make commissions (plus tips); and you’ve gotten your shopping done without even blinking in the direction of a checkout line. Philadelphians are enamored: Business here grew 30 percent just from December to February.
Thanks to the booming start-up culture in cities around the country — a second factor propelling some Convenience Economy momentum — there are now countless delivery models, in the grocery world and beyond. Take the restaurant delivery service Caviar, which partnerswith restaurants and then banks on the exclusivity of many of its partnerships, charging an 18 percent gratuity and a $4.99 delivery fee with each order. (A small price to pay for fresh Federal Donuts, evidently: Every month since its October debut in Philly, Caviar’s order volume has shot up 25 percent.)
Other companies, like the grocery service FreshDirect, rely not on partnerships but on warehouses filled with their own food; some, like Postmates, UberX and even the chore-outsource service TaskRabbit, tap into the sharing economy’s low overhead and up-for-grabs approach to eager freelance employees. Still others, like the national meal-prep delivery enterprise Blue Apron and locally based Black Box Denim, rely on highly customized, prescheduled drop-offs.
I could go on and on about the vastness of this Convenience Economy, the deviations in backstage ministrations, etc., etc. But who has time for that? The average customer just wants to know the basics: price, delivery scheduling, ease of use, and who gets him his Little Baby’s ice cream the fastest. Because speed — well, time, and our complete obsession with it — is a major factor in the Convenience Economy moment.
“You see more people valuing personal service and valuing their time enough to pay for that service,” offers 36-year-old Marisa Piccarreto, who is both a convenience consumer (Instacart, Uber) and a provider. Through her baby boutique and concierge service, My Fabulous Mama, she delivers breast pumps, breastfeeding accessories and other new-parent needs to clients around Center City and South Philly.
“I think it’s partially a demographic thing — the millennials and the impact they’re having,” she says. “They move fast, and they’re comfortable with the idea that time is worth money, even if they’re not in their prime moneymaking years.”
It’s true. Lawyers and hookers don’t hold the monopoly anymore on assigning a dollar value to their time, a trend Postmates co-founder and CEO Bastian Lehmann has been capitalizing on for years now. He once told Fast Company that many of us peg our time at more than $7 to $12 an hour. Which is, conveniently, only a bit more than what I recently paid a Postmate to pick up my lunch across town.
Of course, money isn’t everything. Just think about the energy conservation at stake here. (And by that, I mean the soul-sucking psychic exertion you save when you slough off your most dreaded tasks.) It’s not hyperbolic to say that deliverance can be life-altering. Joy Manning, a 37-year-old writer friend of mine who’s always hated shopping for new clothes, stumbled on the personal shopping and clothing delivery service Stitch Fix last year; she’s since become such a fan that she documents her deliveries on her blog. It’s been the only shopping experience in years, she disclosed to her readers, that “didn’t result in a crying jag.”
“I don’t have a good eye for clothes,” she explains. “And I have body image issues that make shopping emotional and hard for me. This solves that specific problem.”
Stitch Fix is based in San Francisco, but there are any number of Philly businesses lining up these days to deliver the answer to myriad problems — you need better jeans! You need your laundry done! You need customized eyeglasses! You need a hookah!
So okay, you still also need exact change for the bus, and you can’t buy beer at the grocery store, and there’s nothing we can really do about the traffic on the Schuylkill. But those Philly-isms notwithstanding, it would seem fairly apparent that Philadelphia has officially entered a Golden Age of convenience.
ON THE OTHER HAND …
Without looking very hard, you can find critics of the Convenience Economy (namely, economists) who are more than happy to point out its flaws (namely, a workforce largely comprised of independent contractors). Robert Reich, the political economist, author and labor secretary under President Clinton, rages over the so-called Uberization of everything. It’s “nonsense, utter nonsense,” he fumed recently to the New York Times. “This on-demand economy means a work life that is unpredictable, doesn’t pay very well and is terribly insecure.”
It’s a sour note to sound in a moment when everything else about all this convenience is looking pretty great to businesses and consumers alike. Philly in particular is a delivery dream: populous, but not too jammed for couriers to find parking, and growing markedly in the three major convenience-seeking demographics — busy young professionals, families balancing work and child-rearing, and senior citizens who don’t like the transport and effort involved with errand-running.
“It’s a rising city,” says George Shotz, Instacart’s Philly manager. “The Mayor is pushing for businesses here. We know that Philly is making its mark, too, in the tech world. We have Nerd Street — you know, 3rd Street — now, and it shows how we’re changing and embracing start-ups.”
Still, Reich is in good company with his concerns about what all of these start-ups mean for the working man, and thus society as a whole. Lots of detractors argue it’s the less-than-stellar job market (potentially a fourth magical factor in the rise of the Convenience Economy) that has created so many independent contractors in the first place.
You can see where this is going. Big-picture labor ethics aside, on a practical level, you can’t help but wonder: If unemployment rates fall, will there be enough willing Postmates and Instacarters and Uber drivers to make the machine run? If not, can these business models be adjusted? Or would a slightly better job market spell the end of Convenience Economy’s Camelot? Is all such speculation pointless anyway, because drones will eventually take over all our jobs?
Who can say? It does seem fair, though, to surmise that people aren’t going to get less busy. Neither are we going to stop loving our couches, even under the tyranny of the Fitbit. We’re not going to want to spend more time running errands and less time with our kids, or suddenly get excited about lugging three bags of produce eight blocks. The business models may be forced to evolve — and maybe they should — but the Convenience Economy seems to me to have some serious staying power because it appeals to human nature in a way that my friend Alana (32-year-old working mom; addicted to Amazon Prime and Peapod) neatly sums up:
“Even when I lived in New York and didn’t have kids, I’d have wine delivered. Because if you can have it come to you instead of going to get it, why wouldn’t you?”
THE THING IS, I’ve always sort of enjoyed grocery shopping. I like choosing my own ingredients, sometimes spotting something unexpected — kumquats, boudin — that might jazz up a dinner. I love the smells and the sensual pleasures of the produce section. True, I haven’t always loved the line at Trader Joe’s on a Tuesday after work, but the samples usually make up for it.
After we had our son and I went back to work, it made sense, schedule-wise, to have my husband do most of the shopping, at a Wegmans near his office. Then we signed on for Blue Apron — the meal-kit delivery service — to make life even easier. Which it is. The upshot is that there’s never any stopping to smell the tomatoes. Because if I have the choice, how could I choose to wander Whole Foods when I could be spending time with my family, or seeing the occasional friend, or even just doing some other chore I can’t outsource so easily?
I bring this up not to whine about my (non)problems, but because it raises the question of what, exactly, we lose when we gain such marvelous efficiency. It’s overly dramatic, maybe, to get sentimental about something as banal as the cheese case, but there’s something to be said for the beauty in the everyday, the serendipity of running into friends and neighbors while you’re out and about, the feeling of connecting with your environment and your people and your city. Isn’t all of that why I chose to live in the city to begin with?
I worry: Are such things the unintended casualties of the Convenience Economy? It’s so easy now to get detached from the shared experiences that are supposed to unite us … even if what we’re united in is just aggravation in the checkout line. As life grows more tailored to the individual’s needs, what happens to a neighborhood when its hubs stop being so hub-like?
If you’re thinking right about now that all of this sounds suspiciously like ivory-tower upper-middle-class kvetching, well … you’d be right. It’s easy to imagine that luxury services have been democratized for the 99 percent, but more than a quarter of Philadelphians live below the poverty line. If you’re worrying about how you’re going to pay for your groceries each week, you’re probably not going to shell out a few bucks more to have those groceries delivered, even if you could then spend more time with your kids. It’s even less likely you’ll download the app for delivery from your favorite Stephen Starr restaurant. Whoever said that time is the most valuable thing you could spend obviously hasn’t seen the price tag on a Morimoto crab roll.
The truth, though, is that while big-picture concerns like the breakdown of society and class stratification and headlines like the one I saw on Gizmodo (“Order Everything From the Internet and Never Leave Your House Again!”) may nag at you from time to time, the Convenience Economy still feels pretty freaking awesome.
“Sometimes I think ‘What would my mom or grandma say?’” This is working mom Alana (Peapod, Amazon Prime) again. “They wouldn’t believe this is how moms do it now.” But, she says sagely, “Once you have a kid, whatever you can do to make your life easier, you just do it. I’m so glad I have the luxury.”
IT’S FITTING THAT Alana brings up her grandmother. A common theme in every Convenience Economy discussion I’ve had is the generational shift in perspectives about the point where a luxury becomes a given. A PR person for one of the delivery behemoths calls it the “maid effect.” “When I was growing up, if someone came every few weeks to clean your house, that was an elitist type of thing,” she says. “But it’s not seen as an extravagant service anymore. It’s ‘This allows me to fill my time with other things.’”
She’s right. My mother hired cleaners once in her life, when our extended family flew in for my wedding about a month after she had major surgery for breast cancer.
Ours was a DIY type of household. Responsibility, hard work, frugality over frivolity: My grandparents weathered the Depression, so these were the bedrocks on which my parents’ lives — and thus ours — were built. It wasn’t just the money. Careful spending was part of it, sure, but the point was more a sort of rugged individualism, an instinct to do for oneself whatever one could. Oh, and to not be lazy. Being labeled as lazy implied a slippery slope toward some terrible fate, like … I don’t know … the fall of Rome? Or, worse, something akin to the dystopic future portrayed in Pixar’s WALL•E, with bloated humanity shuttled about in automated chairs, zombie-like, with Big Gulps attached to their hands and private movie screens affixed to their faces. (Come to think of it, this sort of sounds like my morning SEPTA ride.)
Anyway. As it turns out, my mom thinks having groceries brought to your house sounds super. We talk over the phone one night about the days when my sister and I were tiny and she’d lug us to the store over icy Midwestern roads. “I’d have loved to have something like that then,” she says. And maybe also when my non-driving grandmother moved to a retirement home near my folks’ house some years ago. Delivery then, Mom admits, could have been life-altering.
“I’d still only do it in moderation, though,” she adds, because she can’t help herself. “But I see the benefits. And it is a changing world.”
Well, it is and it isn’t. After all, she recalls a time when milk delivery and mobile knife-sharpening were services offered to your average household. The generation before hers likely had its groceries and maybe even clothing delivered as a matter of course. It wasn’t extravagant; it was just the business model back then. (Sure, nobody paid extra for those things, like we do, but what don’t we pay for anymore?)
Go even further back — way further back — and you’ll eventually land with the Greeks, and Theophrastus, a philosopher pal of Aristotle’s. He was the guy who said there was nothing more valuable to spend than time. Also, from his deathbed, at the age of 85, he bemoaned the brevity of human existence, sadly noting that we die just as we’re beginning to live.
I suppose, then, you could argue that our whole hyper-modern, technology-driven, sharing-economy, easy-peasy convenience culture didn’t start with Uber, or Steve Jobs, or the Internet or even pizza delivery, but as far back as 287 B.C., with an old Greek man bitching about how little time he had. All of history has led to this moment when we’re determined to have our cake and have it delivered, too.
Because if life is short and time is fleeting, who really wants to spend any of it at Super Fresh?
Originally published as “Deliver Me” in the April 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.