The Insane Logistics of 'eBay Now'

The frontier of online retail keeps getting weirder.

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EBay Now

Austin Carr has an eye-opening story up this morning for Fast Company about what it's like to be a courier for eBay Now, the new service from the online retail giant that aims to deliver whatever you could possibly want from the Internet to your door, in about an hour. As you might imagine, the logistics of doing this are a little ridiculous.

Carr follows an eBay Now "walker" – a kind of pedi-courier – in Manhattan who spends the better part of an afternoon trying to track down some woman's Sally Hansen nail polish (was that mint green? dark green?) and compression bike shorts. He walks 22 minutes to the nearest Kmart, spends 24 minutes anxiously digging for the stuff there (no luck on the bike shorts), waits in the checkout like any other shopper, then trains to Brooklyn Heights and walks another mile to hand over about six bucks worth of goods.

The courier, a guy named Kaushik Mishra with a surprisingly upbeat attitude, is essentially a personal shopper without the expertise that normally defines the trade. At one point, he admits to having called his mother to identify how best to buy a bra. But this particular Sally Hansen gig actually sounds like a cushy one. eBay Now currently has couriers and drivers dashing around New York and San Francisco hefting 60-inch flat-screen TVs and air conditioners. For $5, they'll deliver pretty much anything that will "fit inside of a car," although sometimes that thing will literally arrive on some guy's back.

Fast Company's behind-the-scenes look at the "future of retail" produces a kind of deep-rooted apprehension (and not just because Mishra's own deadline stress is palpable). But at first it's a little hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about this whole concept that seems so... absurd. Mishra's dad nails part of it:

"My parents are immigrants, and my dad is old-school: When he moved to this country, he did manual labor for 15 years," Mishra explains. "He's not concerned with the job itself; he's more so concerned that people are becoming this lazy."

There's more to it than that, though. Yes, it's weird to see anyone with $5 to spend on a delivery charge outsourcing their walk to the nearest pharmacy. It's weird that this guy traveled all over New York and then back again for some nail polish the customer might have obtained faster herself.

And it's weird that eBay touts this service as a form of shopping "locally" (with "local products from local stores") when "local" is really defined as anything that doesn't need to be shipped to you overnight. As eBay's FAQ explains, the system is built on partnerships with chains like Babies R Us, Best Buy, Free People, GNC, Guitar Center, Home Depot, Macy's, Office Depot, Radio Shack, Target, Toys R Us, Urban Outfitters, and Walgreens.

If you're the kind of person who bemoans the loss of local retail for big-box stores, this vision for the "future of retail" goes even one step further, erasing the space between you and the big-box store this afternoon, collapsing that distance during which you might at least bump into your neighbors. This idea also erodes one of the last advantages that truly "local" stores have – that you might walk to them in a few minutes.

Fundamentally, what's really weird about this whole concept is how it redefines convenience in a way that eliminates the factor of distance, or the benefits of... ever leaving your house. Have someone else worry about the logistics of getting anything to you within an hour, and it doesn't really matter if you live three miles from the nearest store, or a 20-minute walk from the subway. In a city full of eBay Now shoppers, "walkability" doesn't mean living near the things you need; it means a guy like Mishra speed-walks eight miles a day.

By all means, if you've got crying kids at home and need some diapers right this second, this kind of service makes some sense. But it's hard to see this model scaling up for everyone – or even why we'd want it to.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.