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Let’s Not Uber Do It

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Heads of State

industryThe best thing about staying in a fancy hotel has always been that you can press a button and someone will instantly bring you a drink or a meal. Press another and you can get an extra blanket, or somebody to sew a button onto your shirt. It’s like having your mom on call.

Now, thanks to our GPS-enabled lifestyles and competitive transaction costs, such perks are moving into all corners of urban life. At the push of a button, or the tap of a screen, we can summon an army of smiley strangers eager to fulfill our every whim.

Blame (or thank) Uber. Upon its 2010 launch, the wildly successful personal driver app gave us a glimpse into a kind of faux-aristocratic lifestyle—“Bring the car round, James”—and we haven’t really known where to stop. From dog walkers to personal chefs, the illusion of a “Downton Abbey”–style downstairs staff is within everyone’s grasp.

Over the last five years, according to financial analysts CB Insights, startups associated with the on-demand economy have received around $10 billion in investment funding—a dynamic that marketing firm WPP has called “Attack of the Uber-Clones.” All a company needs to do these days is position itself as the “Uber of Newspaper Delivery” or the “Uber of Sock Darning” and the venture capitalists will be falling over each other to get involved.

And, in many instances, they’re right to do so. Postmates, a delivery service that uses more than 10,000 couriers across the U.S. (it aims to be the “Uber of Goods”) is racking up 70,000 orders a week, and the company recently teamed up with Starbucks so customers can get their skinny lattes delivered to their desks. Take that, Tony in accounting!

According to Matthew Wong, lead research analyst at CB Insights, this approach to customer service is quickly becoming the norm—and not only in the U.S. “Versions have launched throughout Europe and Asia, targeting the same demographic of well-paid but time-poor city dwellers,” he says.

It sounds all well and good, but what happens when the on-demand economy extends to more significant services? Already, a website called Doctor On Demand touts “fast, easy and cost-effective access” to some of the best psychologists (the “Uber of Shrinks”?) in the U.S. It seems fair to assume that most people would, in this instance, opt for old-fashioned familiarity and continuity over convenience. The same goes for babysitting, hairdressing, Reiki massages. And herein lies a problem: To achieve the low cost/high convenience combo demanded by the Uber generation, on-demand companies employ legions of freelancers with whom you’d be hard-pressed to get on a first-name basis.

While no one’s suggesting that such companies might suddenly adopt a mom-and-pop approach to doing business, there are at least signs of a heightened emphasis on personal service. Gourmet food e-tailer Artizone, for instance, offers its clients (not “users”) the option to book a home visit from a chef, who will prepare, say, “the pasta party for five” you’ve just placed in your basket. The Aki-Home online store has launched a premium home-assembly service. Then there’s Enjoy Technology, possibly the most explicit expression of this subtle but significant shift.

Enjoy is the latest venture from former Apple Store boss Ron Johnson. The company is, in a sense, a progression of the thinking behind his Genius Bars, which allow customers to discuss technical issues with actual human beings rather than engage with online FAQs. Enjoy, for its part, invites customers to buy digital or electronic goods online; the goods are then delivered to “your home, office, a coffee shop—wherever you like.”

That’s the convenience part. The big departure here is that Enjoy employs full-time technicians who not only deliver items but also spend an hour or so showing you how to set them up and use them. There are also plans to host free workshops on, say, digital photography. “We think you have to move from a ‘to the door’ to a ‘through the door’ service,” says Johnson. “Instead of investing in stores or big warehouses, we’re investing in people.”

In explicitly promoting a hybrid of old values and new technology, Enjoy places itself at the vanguard of what Wong calls “real one-click shopping,” which has long been the holy grail of online retailers. “There are a lot of people in Silicon Valley now trying to find the best way to make money merging retail, e-tail, services and delivery,” Wong says. “This is not a fad.”

Indeed, he adds, the blurring of e-commerce and personal service will soon be so normal we may think nothing of buying a pair of pants online and expecting the person who delivers them to shorten the hem. Even your mom may not be prepared to go that far.

Berlin-based writer and editor Boyd Farrow, keen to cash in on the on-demand economy, is now marketing himself as the “Uber of Hacks.”

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