Is The Sharing Economy Good For Delivery Services?

This is all about the sharing economy and focused on delivery services. Over the past year I've gotten excited about Amazon Fresh and the potential it has. I've learned to use Uber with great success and from the two have seen economical benefits of scale and at the same time seen how when mistakes go bad there's a utter lack of owning the problem in the field until you get to someone with authority.

While many local governments are quick to condemn Uber these days, siding with aging taxi and limo fleets, they're avoiding a whole other set of "transportation" companies that deliver other items. So perhaps it's time to look at how the Uber Model that seems to benefit the customer more, as I've had a far higher percentage of great rides vs. a far lower percentage of great deliveries over the past 10 months or so here in the USA.

Let's face it Uber works well because the driver and passenger communicate effectively, when the on-board technology functions (Mapping, GPS) properly and the last, but most important part, the driver knows what he's doing and where he or she is driving. However, a driver who is unable to navigate the region or who has incorrectly programmed their GPS, who is not receiving real time traffic updates,  doesn't know alternative routes of the local travel patterns by day part can almost always bring frustration to even the most patient traveler.

Amazon Fresh is a great concept. Think FedEx for food deliveries. Originally Amazon used their own drivers and a hub and spoke distribution model to get your food to you literally same day or overnight. But as they expanded I began to experience delivery issues-food not arriving on time, being delivered to the wrong address, confusion in the field, and eventually seeing a shift from private delivery to the US Postal Service. As those shifts in trial services evolved the time of delivery window was missed and delays seemed to arise as the post office wasn't using their local postmen to deliver but drivers from other stations who had no familiarity with the various communities.

Compare this to Dominos Pizza who used to have a 30 minute guarantee, or even FedEx and UPS whose route drivers are trained to deal with delays, and which have in place policies that immediately cover mistakes or delays in delivery. Those service all put the burden on their drivers, never make the problem the customer's and never put the blame on the shipper. They own the problem and the solution.

Over in Portugal I made extensive use of the SuperMercado at El Cortes des Ingles for food, grocery and household goods deliveries as the service was accessible on the Web and via an App, much like Amazon Fresh. What I found was loyal, dedicated employees, who showed up on time, with the orders and who checked to make sure the order being delivered was what was ordered.  And, what's more, the deliveries always arrived on time or even earlier than scheduled by no more than an hour. No order was ever late, and no order ever arrived with anything incorrect. The reason was quite simple. The orders were pulled by one person. Checked by another and then the delivery person also checked the order when leaving the distribution center, and counted boxes/containers and bags, all of which were marked #x of y to ensure that nothing remained on the delivery truck. 

Recently though I've experienced food delivery orders that have been both outstanding or downright horrible. It's so hit and miss, I'm going to stop being a paying Guinea Pig as the experience from the many services all suffer from one issue. They don't have a way to cure the problems quickly other than giving a refund. These services include, GrubHub, DoorstepDelivery and Postmates, all part of the sharing economy, where an Uber like approach is applied to the idea of delivery of food from restaurants, pizzerias, sandwich shops and cafes.

From these experiences two consistent threads have emerged: when there's a problem with the order, the delivery service never wants to take the blame. They also have no way to cure the problem.

In every case the delivery company throws the problem back on the food establishment and often the workers at both have no real authority to cure the problem short of giving credit or a refund. Unfortunately, a credit when one is hungry doesn't solve the problem of hunger, nor does blaming the other party do anything to show ownership of the issue. That makes it the customers responsibility, as the delivery supplier is seeking to remove themselves from curing the problem they may have created or perpetuated. As an example, asking Postmates to cure the problem by reordering and handling the delivery results in this statement:

unfortunately, we do not have permission to place orders for customers due to sensitivity issues with personal information. you will receive an email confirmation regarding your refund within 24 hours and you are free to place another order and the delivery cost will be waived by us.

I'm not sure what's sensitive or personal about my order. The driver had plain site view of the order information. Postmates has knowledge of my address, credit card number, name and phone number. If personal information and privacy are concerns, then only take cash, not credit, and double blind the driver and the customer. That would mean not knowing my name, address, unit number, apartment number, phone number so their "reply" doesn't really hold water. What's more it's really unclear if they are acting on my behalf or the suppliers (but the same argument could be made around FedEx and UPS as the customer of the merchant is paying for the service of delivery, but the merchant is their actual customer.)

What have I experienced:

  1. Soggy sandwiches and fries packaged in clear plastic boxes or styrofoam containers.  As the steam from the items (often burgers or steak sandwiches) comes off the bread and meat, the box turns into a sauna. The result, a wilted roll, and a very damp, and cooled off sandwich as the moisture cools. Fries that are soggy or worse, wet, damp and cool.

  2. Pizzas delivered ice cold. This has happened so often with "outsourced" delivery I'm giving up order food from any place that doesn't have their own drivers. I remember the days when pizzerias had their own delivery teams, and their vans and cars had hot boxes in the back or trunk, and the driver used a thick thermal bag to ensure the pie arrived hot. Today, with the shared economy, drivers are lucky to have a hot bag to hold the pizza box, may deliver by bike messenger (in SF this is normal) or simply have too many orders to deliver and the food arrives cold.  I also recall my nights in Philadelphia and New York where delivery was on-time, hot, properly prepared and delivered and where the delivery person was the same person from the restaurants and pizza joints, not a person who was "shared."  But those days are gone.

  3. Multiple Amazon Fresh orders delivered to a house on a different street in my neighborhood because the GPS info from Google Maps was wrong. After the first time, Amazon's Customer Service Team made notes to my account, but when it happened a second and third time after a series of properly delivered orders it became apparent the hard work done by Customer Service to make sure the customer data was updated wasn't making it to new and different modes of delivery as Amazon refined their distribution model.

  4. Delivery times or delivery windows missed to the point where the supplier/restaurant was closed and unable to correct errors with the order or make the order over again.

But, mistakes in delivery that are correctable, and don't impact your health and well being are one thing. Screwing up and delivering cold food that should be hot, and not wanting to own the solution falls not on the delivery company working for third parties, which is what, GrubHub, DoorstepDelivery and Postmates all do. The ownership of the delivery failure falls on the establishment to correct for their customer, and then address what went wrong with the delivery team. Telling the customer the problem isn't their's to cure, other than a refund is avoiding the issue and leaves one hungry. But when both parties blame the other, and claim there's no solution, it clearly means the expectation of a properly handled delivery was a failure by both parties.

On other hand, delivery services that adapt and are equipped to handle hot and cold deliveries as they take on the role of customer agent will thrive. As in Portugal, that means inspecting the order before leaving the supplier's premises, counting items, evaluating the temperature of the items, both hot and cold, then having the properly equipped vehicle to maintain temperature (health and sanitary issues can arise if not) and when making the delivery. This also requires the driver to do more than count the items and scamper off. They also need to make sure the customer is happy that the order was delivered complete and correctly. Unfortunately,, GrubHub, DoorstepDelivery and Postmates never do more than count items, and leave, relying on an email or app message to ask "was everything ok" and if you say no, simply chalk it up and not own the solution.

Compare this to Uber which uses data to improve their services, and never at the cost of a passengers health and welfare. Of late I've seen significant improvements where newer drivers are actually better prepared than newer drivers as recent as six months ago. This is both due to data and a new program where veteran drivers go out into the field to have "test rides" to make sure the new drivers do things right. As one driver who talked about the new program said, "I have a near 5.0 average, so I'm asked to evaluate new drivers. I'm more like a teacher than an instructor, as I correct their mistakes, I don't just tell them what to do and hope the do it right."

Companies which use human evaluation, mystery shopping and data to improve performances, will be more Uber like, where the company never make the passenger the cause of issues when a driver does something wrong. If a bad route is taken or bad driver behavior is reported to them that will quickly yield a credit, a note of appreciation/apology and a survey to see how happy you were with their actions., GrubHub, DoorstepDelivery and Postmates fail to do any of that.  They just "eat their mistakes" but don't really correct the problems.

In my view, local governments need to not look at Uber as the enemy that is destroying the taxi business, but as a company that is doing more things better to improve transportation of people for less money and doing it better. Instead the laws and regulations for delivery of items by these new upstarts and their field force needs to be viewed in such a way as to how local regulations are applied and how they can insure that the customer's expectations are able to be met, safely and in a healthy manner. For example, does the delivery company maintain sanitary conditions in all vehicles? Are the drivers all wearing gloves? Are the drivers tested for health concerns? Flu? TB? Viruses? Is the box or bag being kept at the proper temperature?  

In my book all these new services, like Uber, are great in concept, as they are providing us with greater choices, more flexibility and better options. They are often good for the environment, and result in increasing employment and bolstering the economy. Unfortunately, they are not always good at what their underlying premise is. That being delivery of what was purchased, the way it was purchased, and for when it is supposed to arrive.

Andy Abramson Featured In CNET Magazine

A few months ago CNET's Senior Writer Stephen Shankland interviewed me about business travel and how to "Stay Connected" on the road. That was back in the late winter/early spring and well before "The Workcation" was even envisioned, let alone a reality, and now feels like a distant memory given I'm back on the west coast.

Well, little did I know that not only would my information prove to be useful background for his story, and that I may get a quote or two, but now that the story is out in CNET's hard copy magazine, that i would "be the story."

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Being cited in a story is nice. Getting quoted is nicer. Being the first (or last) quote is the bomb but being the first two words of the story. Well, that's just NUCLEAR HOT....Take a look as the story IS NOT online....but it was a great "welcome home" present..