Twenty years ago last week, Phil Brandenberger paid $12.48 plus shipping for Sting's album "Ten Summoners' Tales." He was the first person to buy something on the internet. In his honor, I fired up Spotify and searched for the album. Before you can say "Fields of Gold is a masterpiece you seriously don't know what you're talking about," I'd ordered a phone charger, a dozen eggs, some underwear, a bunch of cupcakes, and a six-pack of beer. I ordered it on the internet. And it's all going to be here in the next few minutes.
Two decades into online shopping, same-day delivery is the next frontier, at least in densely populated urban areas like New York City. (Bringing quick and varied delivery options anywhere else is going to be an entirely other challenge.) This is how Amazon and others think they'll kill brick-and-mortar stores once and for all, bringing you the convenience and pants-free experience of online shopping right alongside the immediate gratification of buying something in a store. Amazon, Google, eBay, and countless startups of all sizes are competing to see who can get to your door first. Even Uber is in on it — and it won’t be the last to try.
Thanks to Seamless, delivery food is already a (mission-critical) part of urban life. What if that could be extended to everything? What if I could have someone wade into the terrifying morass of the Brooklyn Target to get me a shirt for my date tonight, or track down some camembert before my parents get here? What if it only took six taps on my phone's screen?
That's the plan. Can anyone pull it off? To find out, I ordered from them all. The goal: to see how fast "same-day delivery" really is.
For the purposes of my experiment, I ordered things that you might have a sudden and timely need for. What if you get to the office, and you've got a stain on your shirt and a date tonight? What if you haven't had coffee yet and you have to speak to another human? What if you're cooking dinner and you're missing a key ingredient? What if you discover you're out of toilet paper… and it's a bad time to discover you're out of toilet paper? What if you just like really need cupcakes?
I split the essentials into six orders, and placed them in six different places: Amazon, eBay Now, Google Shopping Express, Postmates, WunWun, and Instacart. The first three are the Goliaths, the latter the Davids — but everyone's in the same race. Go.
One Amazon Basics USB-to-Lightning cable, $14.99. Total, including Amazon's $5.99 same-day delivery fee (the Prime member deal): $20.98.
One dozen Starbucks Verismo coffee pods, House blend $11.99. Total, including eBay's $5.00 (per store) fee and a $5.00 tip: $23.05.
Google Shopping Express
One blue dress shirt, size medium, $24.99. One pair boxers, size medium, $4.99. No delivery fee, because I accidentally signed up for a free trial that apparently expires in February, 2015. Total: $29.98.
One six-pack Poland Spring Lime Sparkling Water, $3.69. One six-pack Brooklyn Lager, $9.29. One dozen Fairway Market eggs, $3.77. Total, including $3.00 pre-paid tip: $21.77.
One dozen mini Magnolia cupcakes, $18. One mini key lime pie cheesecake, $7. Six cracked sugar cookies, $6. (One office full of Verge employees who love me: priceless.) Total, including $6.00 delivery fee and $5 tip: $44.79.
One half-dozen bagels, plain. One Starbucks iced coffee, skim milk. Total, including $4.07 tip: $15.45.
A few things about same-day delivery quickly became clear. For one thing, the number of things you can have delivered is remarkably broad. eBay is partnering with stores like Best Buy, Macy's, Walgreen's, Toys ‘R' Us, Urban Outfitters, and Target. Google Shopping Express has Target, Walgreen's, Staples, Toys ‘R' Us, and Costco. I could buy boxers or a television, beer or a toaster oven. No app offers everything I wanted, but between the six I could find pretty much anything.
Most same-day delivery services work basically the same way
The startups in the fight, which are much more mobile-first experiences, have different ideas about how to work. Postmates is a sort of Seamless-for-everything: it has some stores and menus built in, but you can just type in any store and any order and you'll be taken care of. Instacart is largely for grocery shopping, having partnered with a few stores like Fairway. WunWun is a little broader, offering everything from Starbucks to Apple to Lululemon and Tiffany & Co.
They all work essentially the same way: you either pick a store to shop at, or search for an item. Searching for "seltzer" brings up a lot of options in any app, some relevant and some not so; searching "TV" is equally hit and miss across the board. But in every case I found what I was looking for in only a minute or two, and wound up browsing Instacart and Postmates for other things I might need as well. I mean hey, I’ve got a personal shopper for an hour; time to put them to work. None of the apps are particularly wonderful or intuitive (Postmates is the easiest to use), but they all work efficiently enough.
Amazon's the only service I tried that actually ships things from its own warehouses; every other service just sends a messenger to the store you specify. Google Shopping Express then puts things into branded white bags, but every other option just comes in the bag the cashier put it in. You’re paying someone a few bucks to run out and grab you something — it’s essentially like saying "hey I’ll buy you a coffee if you go get them for us." It’s simple and obvious and probably hard to scale, and there’s some uniquely odd about having a total stranger hand you a plastic Bed Bath & Beyond bag and then just walk away. But I love it.
In the two minutes after submitting my order, five services sent me an email to let me know my order was accepted and in process. WunWun, on the other hand, sent me a text: "Hi David - welcome to WunWun! What kind of bagels would you like?" And then a follow-up: "Additionally, what size iced coffee would you like from Starbucks? Any shots or additions?" Two texts later — fresh bagels, plain, milk in my coffee, please and thank you — WunWun let me know my "helper" was on the way.
"Hi David - welcome to WunWun! What kind of bagels would you like?"
About ten minutes after that, I got a text from a number I didn't know. It was Marco, letting me know he'd already gotten my bagels and was heading to Starbucks. I said thanks, because that seemed like the nice thing to do. He has my number, we’re apparently friends now.
About fifteen minutes after sending my orders, I got a phone call. It was from Tyler, a fast-talking Instacart messenger calling me from Fairway to let me know they didn't have the seltzer I was looking for in bottles but they do have other flavors and was I okay with cans instead? Yes, cans are fine. "Great!" I'm almost done I'll be right over."
Most of the other services offered some sort of tracker, but much less personality. I knew the name and phone number of my Postmates delivery guy (hey Moysey), and his location on a map while he was getting my order. Lesson of the day: the Magnolia line is long. I could also call him with one tap, which eBay Now offered as well. Google Shopping Express and Amazon felt slightly more disconnected, showing me just basic shipping tracking like for any other package. I know more about my Domino’s pizza than I did my precious, timely cargo. But in every case, anytime I checked, I knew where my stuff was or could find out easily. I figured I'd wait a few minutes before I called Tyler to wonder where my seltzer was. But hurry up, dammit, I’m thirsty.
I didn't have to call, because Tyler showed up in a green Instacart shirt with a big smile on his face and three plastic Fairway bags a grand total of 52 minutes after I placed my order. He smiled, checked my ID (I also bought beer) and then before I could even say thanks was back on the elevator. Tyler had things to do.
Alan, the eBay Now delivery guy with a Bed Bath & Beyond bag in his hand, had a little more time to linger. (He’d beaten Tyler by two minutes, and they wound up swapping delivery stories in the Verge lobby for a while). Alan told me he works for a messenger company that was subcontracted by eBay to do messenger work. He's been a messenger for a while, he says, and eBay Now is a pretty good gig — people tip well, and the only real difference is that this time you actually go into the stores and buy stuff. "Do you need me to stick around?" he asked, as I pestered him with questions. "Because…" and he pointed to his bag. I let him go.
Postmates and WunWun each took almost exactly an hour to get to me, though my 18-year-old WunWun messenger told me it was mostly because the Starbucks line is really long. In each case, they handed me a phone with an app running, asked me to input a tip and sign my name, and were on their merry way.
Sixty minutes, four orders
Sixty minutes after I placed my orders, four of them had arrived. That blew my mind. I'd paid, in total, probably $12 more than I would have to get everything in a store myself, and I'd saved a ton of time. If a friend had said "pay me $12 and I'll do all your errands for you this morning," I'd have done it in a heartbeat. I'd pay $12 just to not have to stand in the Starbucks line some mornings.
My Google Shopping express order came at 2PM (the app offered 1-5 or 6-10PM, I just said as soon as possible), a dress shirt and pair of boxers packed into a gray Google Shopping Express bag.
Everything I ordered came neat and tidy and exactly as ordered. The only exception: my Starbucks coffee from WunWun, which came with a heaping spoonful of sugar I didn’t ask for. I don’t know whose fault that is, the barista or the messenger, but I’ll never forgive them.
And my Amazon order never showed up, because the delivery guy called me and I didn't answer so he took off. (The nice thing about the other apps, the messengers with shopping bags in their hands, is that they hang around a little longer, like food delivery guys. The Amazon guy just took off in his truck again.) I'll get that phone charger eventually. I think.
The Seamless Method vs. The Postal Method
There are basically two different approaches to same-day delivery. One is the Seamless Method: a guy takes things from a store and brings them to you. They'll come to your door, up the stairs to your apartment, and hand it to you. It comes in a bag, you tip the guy, done and done. The other approach is the Postal Method: basically the same as any other kind of delivery, just, you know, faster. That's what Google and Amazon are doing, and it's ultimately probably a lot more efficient and cost-effective. But it's also slower, more impersonal, and not nearly as inclusive.
With the smaller companies, especially with WunWun and Postmates, I had this personal assistant, someone doing my shopping exactly the way I wanted and keeping in touch with me the whole way. I could call them by name, and change my order whenever I wanted. I wanted fresh bagels, so I got fresh bagels, thankyouverymuch.
I’m sort of shocked at how good, and how efficient, same-day delivery service is. For a few dollars and a few minutes more, it feels like anything I need can be set down in front of me, ready for my consumption. I could order a TV at the start of the Super Bowl and be watching it well before halftime. And for all the economic problems this kind of service can cause, I didn’t meet anyone who really loathed their work. (My sample size is of course small, and not the point of this experiment anyway.) A few were doing it for extra money, one to fill spare time. One really liked that it was helping him lose weight.
At some point, most of these companies — especially the smaller ones — are going to disappear. The economics won’t scale, or the startups will buckle under the demand and give up in the face of disastrous service records. Even the successful ones will have trouble bringing this kind of speed and service outside of big cities, to the suburbs and small towns where most people need delivery far more than I do.
But while it's here, I’m going to use the absolute hell out of same-day delivery. It’s less useful for what Amazon or Google offer, but whether it’s lunch during an endless meeting, a last-minute shirt, or just a six pack of beer because I need a beer right now, I’m going to be firing up Instacart and WunWun and Postmates a lot.
I also just found "Ten Summoners’ Tales" for $10.99 at the Barnes & Noble downtown. It’ll be here in a few minutes.