There’s an Uber for Everything Now
May 5, 2015 Leave a comment
There’s an Uber for Everything Now
Apps do your chores: shopping, parking, cooking, cleaning, packing, shipping and more
Illustration: Robert Neubecker
Geoffrey A. Fowler
May 5, 2015 1:09 p.m. ET
The fabulously wealthy may call their servants by ringing a little bell. In the lifestyles of the geeky and lazy, one can now summon a household staff just by tapping on a smartphone.
I’ve got a maid, masseuse, doctor, chef, valet, personal shopper, florist and bartender. Each has his own app and can arrive at my door in as few as 10 minutes.
Yes, this sounds ridiculous. But it might also be the future of how busy nonbillionaires get all kinds of chores done.
Push for Pizza’s app allows users to quickly order pizza pies. Photo: Cyrus Summerlin
A concierge economy is sprouting up on phones, and no place more so than in my city of San Francisco, the capital of Internet La La Land. These startups like to say they’re just like Uber, the car service that has upended transportation, because they use phones to connect customers with nearby workers on demand.
There’s an Uber for everything now. Washio is for having someone do your laundry, Sprig and SpoonRocket cook your dinner and Shyp will mail things out so you don’t have to brave the post office. Zeel delivers a massage therapist (complete with table). Heal sends a doctor on a house call, while Saucey will rush over alcohol. And by Jeeves, cutesy names are part of the schtick—Dufl will pack your suitcase and Eaze will reup a medical marijuana supply.
There are so many more. It’s hard to know how seriously to take these apps at a glance, so I’ve been living off a dozen of them for the past week. (Yes, my rigorous testing included mimosas and a massage.)
Life sure is easy when you let your apps do the walking, but I learned they’re not only for the lazy. Most provided great service and, to my surprise, some have ingenious new business models that actually saved me money. It’s just not clear how many will make sense outside dot-com Camelots like San Francisco—or even still be in business in a year.
My favorite service is Luxe. A marvel of the logistics only possible in a smartphone world, Luxe uses GPS to offer a personal parking valet. It’s magical. When you first get in your car, you open the Luxe app to tell it where you’re going. Then Luxe tracks your phone as you make your way, so that one of its valets meets you at your destination just in the nick of time.
Last Friday, my Luxe valet Kevin—dressed in a blue uniform and fully vetted, trained and insured—greeted me at my office in San Francisco’s Financial District around 8:45 a.m. I handed him my keys and he whisked away my car.
Luxe provides valets who meet drivers at their cars and park them. This employee navigates the streets on his skateboard. Photo: Luxe
At 6 p.m., I pulled up the Luxe app again and requested my car be returned in a different part of town. No problem. In under 10 minutes, a valet named Ross was there with my car, along with his foldable scooter, and a ukulele, in my trunk. The scooter is for getting up and down the hills of San Francisco, he says, and the ukulele fills time between jobs.
What’s most remarkable is that this service cost me just $15 plus a $3 tip. Paying for a parking spot in my own building would have cost $35. How is that possible? Luxe’s CEO Curtis Lee told me he negotiates favorable rates with underused parking garages and passes some of the savings along. (Luxe’s rates vary by time and location, but across the five cities where it’s now available, the fee tops out at around $15 a day.)
Only once did Luxe leave me in the lurch: On Sunday, it closes at 6 p.m., so I couldn’t use it to park for a concert. (Other nights it is open until 11 p.m. or midnight.)
The Shyp app sends people to you to pack and ship your mail. Photo: Shyp
Like most of these on-demand apps, Luxe relies on temporary workers who get paid by the interaction—how many cars they can flip. The app tells them which parts of town have the most potential for business. On a busy day, they could make $20 to $30 per hour, but if nobody wants to park one day, it’s instant noodles for dinner.
That’s the big idea behind on-demand apps, says Venky Ganesan, managing director at venture-capital firm Menlo Ventures, which has invested in Uber, Munchery (food delivery), UrbanSitter (baby sitting) and Rover (dog sitting), among others. By making it much easier to create a trustworthy marketplace, he says, apps take advantage of previously underused resources, including both temporary workers and things like empty parking spots. This can make an on-demand concierge economy both convenient and efficient, he says.
The best of the people-powered apps I tried did save me money, or at least didn’t charge me any extra for their convenience. Shyp picked up—and even packed up—a package for $5. But the service didn’t end up costing more because they negotiate bulk rates with carriers. (Shyp charged $48 to pack and FedExmy package across the country, about the same I would have paid had I schlepped it over to the FedEx shop myself.)
Saucey delivers goods available at liquor stores. Photo: Getty Images for Louise Roe
Both Push for Pizza, which gets local pizzerias to deliver large pies in a few taps, and Saucey, which has drivers pick up and deliver from liquor stores, say their retail partners give them a cut for sending them business. Getting a delivery doesn’t cost you more than if you’d gone to the store yourself—except perhaps for a tip, which you can usually add in the app.
Make no mistake, it takes an entitled mind-set to use many of these apps. The Heal app sent an excellent Stanford-trained doctor to my door to check out an injury in under an hour, but I paid $99 for the convenience. (My insurance wasn’t accepted.) Washio charged me $1.60 per pound of laundry plus a delivery fee; I could have done it for a little less by bringing the hamper to a wash and fold, or a lot less by doing it myself.
Postmates delivered four mint mojito iced coffees, but I paid nearly $30 for the luxury. The delivery fee, which can be as little as $5, was $8.50 because I requested the drinks from my favorite spot a few miles away.
All of these prices could go down if services became popular, but that’s a big if.
A Sprig employee preps organic chard for a dinner service. Photo: Natty Coleman
Many food apps are trying to invent new business models beyond just delivery. Sprig and SpoonRocket, which are trying to one-up fast food, cook up their own limited menus, then dispatch vehicles packed with $8 to $15 entrees. Software tells cars which neighborhoods to hang out in to optimize speedy delivery.
Both were able to bring me a pretty tasty lunch in under 10 minutes. SpoonRocket tries to be even more efficient by making you grab your meal out of the window of its delivery car, like an ice-cream truck.
Can tech companies really offer better experiences than the taqueria, flower shop or dry cleaner down the street, while taking a cut for themselves? Not necessarily. Quality control is a challenge when the supervisor is just software. While I didn’t have any major problems, I’ve heard horror stories from readers and colleagues who have tried shipping and laundry apps. And these apps have been coming and going quickly: At least two on-demand carwash services have already gone defunct in San Francisco.
There are big questions about whether these apps will be allowed to call their workers contractors, instead of employees who get benefits and overtime pay. Many of them offer basically minimum-wage work and a lot of risk, which might make it hard to keep a stable staff. One notable exception is Zeel, which sends you a vetted, licensed massage therapist for between $100 and $130 an hour. Since nobody has to pay for the overhead (or cucumber water) of a spa, the therapist makes two to three times as much money.
Postmates sends employees to pick up and deliver goods from stores. Photo: Abby Wilcox
And fundamentally, how much does using your phone as a concierge make sense beyond Silicon Valley, New York City and Los Angeles? It’s a question of both supply of willing part-time app workers and demand for a concierge lifestyle.
Some services seemed like they could work in South Carolina, where I grew up. Push for Pizza is a no-brainer: It gives you something you already want, but even more easily—that’s just evolution.
But from a South Carolina perspective, ordering from Postmates feels like throwing money away. While it’s nice that it can bring me food from stores that don’t ordinarily deliver, it makes little sense in a land of broad streets, supermarkets and plentiful parking.
Still, everyone values time differently. One way to measure a service app’s value is by the hassle it replaces. Paying an $8 premium to have Postmates deliver a gourmet family dinner might seem a small price to a harried parent. And Postmates is available in 14 states—far more than most other services I tried.
What’s a luxury anyway? Nobody calls Uber a “limousine service” anymore—they just call Uber. A lot.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler or on Twitter @geoffreyfowler.