This time around, they might actually work.
It's no secret that e-commerce is cutting into the traditional shopping custom of actually going to a store. As Dan Glass points out in his exhaustive piece on the future of city freight systems, Americans drummed up $262 billion in online retail sales in 2013, with that number expected to hit $370 billion by the time this sentence is written (all right, by 2017). But for all the thrill of the click-and-buy, there's still the painful delivery wait that follows: a couple days to a week of forgetting about the order, perhaps regretting it, then getting excited all over again when it arrives.
Well, we may not have to wait long for the end of waiting. There's a new generation of city delivery services that aim to make the delivery element of e-commerce as instantaneously fulfilling as the purchase itself. The general model is that city residents tell these services what items they want, and the services send someone to go get it, often within an hour. The actual retailer is cut out of the loop. Food is just the tip of the iceberg: if it can be purchased in the city, it's fair game. This is pizza delivery-meets-everything that's not pizza. (And, still, pizza.)
The industry leader at the moment may be a service called Postmates. After launching in San Francisco in 2012, Postmates expanded to Seattle, New York, Washington, D.C., and earlier this year, Chicago. By early 2014 it had reportedly raised $22 million in financing. Within the past month, it's announced a pending presence in Miami, Denver, and Las Vegas, and hired a former Google Wallet developer to head operations. By the end of the year, Postmates will be bringing people whatever they want, within an hour, in 16 U.S. cities.
The idea is promising enough for the biggest names in e-commerce to join the fray. That list includes eBay Now, Amazon Same Day, and Google Shopping Express. The service fees and list of participating stores may vary, but the concept is the same. Specialty services have emerged, too. Instacart will pick up and delivery groceries from you favorite local supermarket from morning to midnight. Priv does the same for beauty services. Why hurry out of the house to get a manicure when the manicure will come to you?
The concept of on-demand couriers itself isn't new, and the first time around didn't go so well. After being valued in the billions in the late 1990s-early 2000s, services like Kozmo and Urban Fetch fell flat. The new crop could still collapse, too; eBay now is reportedly struggling, and none of the services are household names. At a panel to discuss the future of cities at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit last week, the tech executive (and late-game 2013 New York mayoral candidate) Jack Hidary listed some of the top same-day services and asked who used them. Only a smattering of hands in the audience went up.
But Hidary is confident the new generation will catch on eventually. "On-demand mobile commerce apps will hit retail much harder than traditional ecommerce," he tells CityLab. "They fulfill the instant-gratification urge and will cut out the retailer as they gain customer trust." And he's not alone. Writing at Business Insider last month, Tanner Hackett offered five reasons why "this time it's different" for the on-demand goods economy—the most compelling being our always-connected lifestyle.
Assuming this time is indeed different, what does that mean for our cities—and specifically for the urban transportation networks that bear the weight of goods movement? The answer would seem to depend, in large part, on the persistence of what mobility scholars call Marchetti's Constant, which says that people have a travel-time budget of roughly an hour a day. The concept expects a person who ends one travel behavior (say, a routine errand to the store) to replace it with a new travel behavior that takes just as long.
If the constant holds true, and people spend just as much time traveling while their goods spend more time in-transit, then urban transportation network may face an overload. (At the extreme end of this scenario, as laid out by NYU's new report on Urban Mobility circa 2030, goods movement is sequestered to the evening hours, though the price of goods would likely rise in such a case.) If the constant breaks down, and we stop traveling as our goods come to us, then perhaps we live out the plot of WALL-E and become inert blobs attached to our on-demand remotes.
Neither is a terribly pleasant fate. But at least it will be a convenient one.