Of Course We Ended Up With 15-Minute-Delivery Apps

Last month, I was savagely attacked by The Onion: “Package That Arrived in 24 Hours Sits Unopened on Table for Week,” read the headline. The reality was even worse than the satire. A package delivered in just two days had been sitting on the desk in front of me since January. I still haven’t opened it.

With more than half of U.S. adults wielding Amazon Prime memberships, I’m clearly not alone in getting deliveries faster than I probably need them. All injury aside, this bit of ridicule illustrates one specific irony of contemporary consumer life: Despite worker shortages, supply-chain snarls, and a pandemic that has oriented many people’s lives around the home, the quest for faster delivery has actually intensified over the past two years. At least 36 percent of Americans are now using same-day delivery, while delivery apps such as Shipt, for example, promise some deliveries in as little as an hour.

And yet, somehow, that still doesn’t seem to be fast enough. In recent months, there’s been a boom in apps promising to deliver food and household goods on astonishingly tight turnarounds, some of them in 15 minutes or less. Featuring very start-up-y names—Gopuff, Jokr, Gorillas, Getir—these companies rely on their own private neighborhood supermarkets (ominously called “dark stores”), which allows them to ferry goods and groceries far quicker than bigger players such as Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect. So far, the majority of these companies are available only in pockets of major cities such as New York and Boston (as well as in parts of Europe), but the business model has been catnip for venture capitalists: According to the research firm PitchBook, VCs sank $9.7 billion into hyper-fast-delivery companies last year alone. Other industry stalwarts, such as Instacart and DoorDash, are following their lead and entering the fray.

Still, in retail as in life, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Getting groceries at warp speed comes with very real consequences. There’s the potential safety hazard for workers and pedestrians in an already dangerous industry, or the reality that these start-ups, many of which require smartphones, aren’t terribly democratic compared with the bodegas and corner stores they may someday replace. But perhaps the biggest potential toll of the rapid-delivery craze is what it could do to all of us as consumers. Regardless of whether these start-ups take root everywhere, they already seem destined to have an effect on the broader consumer mindset about when we should expect our deliveries to come. Faster delivery has a way of making the rest of life seem irritatingly slow and, in America, that practically constitutes a mortal sin.

The elevator pitch for hyper-fast delivery doesn’t require much imagination. The app-driven thrill of shallots delivered quicker than your pasta water comes to a boil is a dream for a home chef in the way that 15-minute Doritos is a godsend for the hangry among us. Especially for consumers with limited mobility, the upside can be meaningful. Best of all, instead of relying on independent contractors like most other delivery and ride-sharing apps in the gig economy do, the companies tend to hire their own staffers and provide them with e-bikes and scooters to meet their very tight deadlines. Naturally, the prices for groceries through these apps tend to run higher than what you would find in a traditional supermarket, but in some cases, it’s not that much more expensive. For example, through Gorillas, among the biggest of the hyper-fast start-ups, a loaf of Dave’s Killer Bread runs $6.49, while the same item is $4.94 at Whole Foods.

Though the technology behind 15-minute delivery may be new, if anything, it’s simply the latest iteration of a particular American restlessness and love of gimmickry. By now, our obsession with delivery speeds might as well be a national pastime. “Here in the U.S.—and this has, in some ways, always been true, even compared to Europe or other places—there’s been this reference point of an efficient economy,” Ashwani Monga, a marketing professor at Rutgers University who studies consumer psychology, told me. “When you talk about efficiency and productivity, you’re basically asking, ‘How much can I do in the least amount of time?’ And that reference point keeps changing every few years.”

Centuries before these delivery apps became the centerpieces of euphoric VC pitch decks, entrepreneurs were pushing the boundaries of these reference points—expanding expectations by narrowing time frames. Even when these innovations failed or became outdated, the new standards have had a way of embedding themselves. Take the Pony Express, for example. Before the transcontinental telegraph put it out of business in 1861, the Pony Express pledged that a letter from Missouri could reach California in 10 days or fewer. Prior to that, correspondence sent cross-country could take weeks or even months by ship or stagecoach. But like the couriers on e-bikes gunning to make deliveries in 15-minute windows, a lesser-noted part of the Pony Express mythology were the riders deployed to achieve these feats in just 10 days. As one foreboding Pony Express recruitment poster revealed, the company sought out “young, skinny, wiry fellows” who were under 18, preferably orphans, and willing to risk death. (In the 19 months that the service operated, at least eight riders died in a variety of gruesome ways.)

Of course, America didn’t stop going to extreme lengths to pursue more efficient delivery. Fast-forward to 1984, when the country lost its mind over Domino’s “30 Minutes or It’s Free” pizza-delivery promotion. As anyone who remembers dial-up internet knows, the deal infiltrated popular culture, serving as a bit in countless movies and TV shows, while also powering Domino’s to become the world’s largest pizza chain. The promotion became so popular and so costly that the company later had to amend it to a $3 discount. The deal was scrapped in 1993, but by then it was too late: Domino’s 30-minute guarantee created a standard for pizza delivery that didn’t exist before and has never entirely gone away since.

With the proliferation of 15-minute-delivery apps, it’s not hard to see the contours of a new consumer standard taking hold—because a new consumer standard is what Americans seem to want. Since the start of the pandemic, a majority of American consumers have not only compressed their baseline expectation of shipping times to just a few days, but also expressed a willingness to pay more to get even shorter delivery time frames than that. This is happening even as the adoption and commercial viability of 15-minute delivery are far from forgone conclusions. One well-known quirk of VC-funded start-ups is that they don’t always require immediate profitability (or even semi-immediate profitability). And delivering goods or groceries that quickly without also charging $10 for a banana may not be a winning business formula. In March, two Russian-funded apps, Fridge No More and Buyk, suddenly collapsed under U.S. sanctions, while Gorillas has started to backtrack on its initial delivery promise.

Unfortunately, once a new standard exists, it’s very hard to claw an older one back. And whether it’s the Pony Express, Domino’s, or Amazon Prime, newfangled standards and fresh consumer reference points always come at a cost. Even as technological improvements abet America’s obsession with efficiency, consumers still seem to miss what the effect of ever-quickening delivery means for themselves and for those doing the heavy lifting. Domino’s 30-minute policy met with a disastrous ending after a series of serious and even fatal car crashes that involved on-the-job delivery drivers who were accused of rushing to keep their company’s promise.

Meanwhile, the massive challenges facing the workers who power Amazon’s two-day delivery apparatus have become the stuff of legend. Though 15-minute-delivery workers seem to have better conditions than other urban delivery workers, the results could still get ugly. Delivery is a dangerous business. In New York City, some lawmakers are trying to ban the 15-minute promise for precisely that reason.

More broadly, though, the problem is that this thirst for speed doesn’t actually make our lives appreciably easier or better. The delivery blitz from an hour to 30 minutes to 15 is evidence of absurdity more than innovation. In most cases, we don’t truly need things immediately, and, even as the market hustles to set a new standard, the benefits tend to wear off rapidly. “As humans, we quickly adapt to new reference points, but it doesn’t necessarily make us happier,” Monga said. “If everyone’s packages arrive in two days, then we’re all equally happy, just as we were when we would get things in 10 days. In fact, there’s a term for it called ‘hedonic adaptation.’”

Regardless of whether 15 minutes becomes a new defining standard of service, it seems evident that our constantly shortening reference points just make us feel more impatient all the time. It’s visible in the irritation about supply-chain woes or the eternal fury about hold times. The attraction of hyper-fast delivery is the natural extension of this over-optimized mindset, where the desire to think reflexively about getting groceries as soon as possible obscures what it’s doing to us and others in the process.

In a perfect world, none of us would need anything in 15 minutes. Barring that, we could always find a less harmful piece of satire to inhabit.


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