We Can Deliver It For You Wholesale, and other adventures in same-day AutoTurking.

taskrabbitSo yesterday I didn’t feel well enough to go to work and sit in front of a computer.

I felt just barely well enough to lie on the couch with a computer on my lap. My boyfriend had needs, however.

“Do we have any food?” he wanted to know. That’s code for “Sudo, make me a sandwich” in our house. He’s the primary breadwinner; I work half-time and housewife the rest.

My mom didn’t burn her bra so I could live out traditional gender archetypes, but she also didn’t plan on having a daughter with disabling health issues who’d choose to live in the second most expensive part of the US, where you can’t live without a tech worker income and tech workers work too many hours to take care of themselves. So sue me, First-Wavers.

As it happened, we spent last weekend at DragonCon, and we were entirely out of the assortment of chips, cheese sticks, frozen pizza and energy drinks he considers food. Then he said, “Do you think we could find someone to install the air conditioner on Craigslist?”. Which is code for “You said you were going to sign up for TaskRabbit and find someone to install the air conditioner, would you please do it soon cause I work at home and it’s sweltering in our gorgeous little vintage apartment.”

Lying on the couch with my laptop, feeling crappy, I suddenly surrendered to decadence and privilege. We don’t have any of the security a middle class life used to provide- his stock options aren’t exactly a pension and the ’97 Honda Civic a previous tech worker bf gave me has negative trade-in value. My North Berkeley house was sold at a huge loss in the real estate bust, and I’m paying off the IRS from my stab at supporting myself as an artist in this town. But we can sure as hell afford quality of life.

I opened Instacart and TaskRabbit accounts, ordered the groceries and posted the task. Within an hour “Emily” had delivered our groceries and a TaskRabbit named Jasper had arranged to come by at 9:30 to put the AC in.

“Hipster slaves bring us goods and services!”, I crowed when the bf went downstairs to answer the door and reported Emily looked about 22. I’d ordered the air conditioner before we left for Georgia in a fit of frustration after driving to Target and Walmart in Sunday traffic, only to find ACs gone for the season despite the assurances I’d received on the phone. And it was Back-to-School craziness at the stores, too. “We’re getting Amazon Prime and I’m buying it online”, I told the bf, who nodded sagely, as he does in these situations.

So it’s insane to be able to get a 70-lb air conditioner shipped to you for free.

How in the world is this a sustainable business model? Will the fact that from now on I’ll order our shampoo and paper towels from Amazon instead of going to Target, and our lousy $79 a year, make up for that initial loss?

It’s insane to get groceries delivered for free.

Will the fact that Instacart tacks on a mysterious hidden surcharge to the grocery prices (it seemed like about 15-20% to me on the particular items I ordered) make Instacart survive where Webvan didn’t? I knew Webvan, and you, sir, are no Webvan. But maybe the new Plus model with market price items will put customers who flinch at the surcharge (like me) at ease.DUWwfuM

It’s insane to hire a total stranger who has no license or bond to come and fix stuff at your house.

For one thing, if you’re pleased with the stranger’s work, who wouldn’t you just contact them directly from now on, cutting out TaskRabbit?

Also, what about safety? I’d never take a Lyft or Sidecar alone; I’d never invite a strange TaskRabbit into my house unless my bf was home, just like I’d never have food delivered from a restaurant if I was home alone. Obviously, female TaskRabbits should never take tasks that involve being home alone with a strange man, since TaskRabbit doesn’t have ratings or background checks for Task-posters.

What about liability? TaskRabbit abdicates all responsibility and accepts no liability, just like rideshare services and those doucheboat captains at Airbnb.

TaskRabbit has better failsafes than most sharing economy/microlabor cashgrabs, though.

You can see at a glance how many tasks a TaskRabbit has done and read their reviews. Because Taskrabbiting is more complex than driving someone somewhere and often involves much more discussion and/or personal contact, the opportunity for assessing the person’s character is much greater. When I got a message that we’d been assigned a TaskRabbit, less than two minutes after I posted the job, I checked out his profile. Reading the reviews actually put me quite at ease, and it didn’t hurt that he was super cute.

What about liability? We were having a stranger install a heavy object in a second-floor window above a busy street.

We have liability coverage in our renter’s insurance, in case I accidentally give someone food poisoning or drop a heavy cat on their foot. But would it cover an accident caused by an unlicensed subcontractor? Would placing a claim cause us to lose our coverage? Incidents with Lyft indicate this could be a problem. The truth is, it was hot and I didn’t care. I was ready to roll the numbers.

As it turned out, Jasper was absolutely great, a perfect “culture fit” – smart, friendly and capable as well as tall and tattooed. He was pretty new in town and giving him this money to do this task helped support exactly the kind of person we value in our community- a resourceful, hardworking multi-talented artist. For us, it was perfect because we paid less than we would have paid a bonded tradesman, we were able to get same-day service, and he came late at night, when we’re most functional, for no extra charge.

But how should we feel about taking money out of the pocket of a licensed handyman who has a brick-and-mortar location in Oakland that they pay overhead costs on, perhaps a business they’ve had for decades?

I don’t know how to feel about it. We could afford TaskRabbit rates; I don’t know that we would actually have made the decision to spring for the higher cost of a contractor. I might have tried to do it myself, with the bf’s help, thereby making us both miserable.

What about giving money to Instacart’s CEO, former Amazon supply-chain engineer Apoorva Mehta, who seems like a tool? I’m pretty sure Emily’s getting minimum wage, plus tips. She’s sacrificing wear-and-tear on her car for frontloaded cash, just like I did working as a sales rep when I came here 16 years ago. The numbers don’t crunch too well for her. Will the new Instacart Plus, which purports to undercut your local stores (including discount stores) hurt brick and mortar businesses?

This article, from Slate, suggests that Amazon same-day delivery will cripple local retail.

I’m not entirely on-board with that idea, because Amazon same-day delivery doesn’t fit every need and it isn’t for every person. The article ends by asking “Why would you shop anywhere else?”, assuming “you” is a person with a laptop or smartphone and a credit card, who’s going to be home to receive the delivery or living in a safe enough neighborhood to leave it. In our Oakland neighborhood, that doesn’t describe everybody. It does, however, describe me.

Driving to work today, I heard an ad on the radio for eBay Now. On the RADIO.

Who listens to the radio, besides 46-year-old part-time marketers who hate Apple products and don’t have iPods? The ad was on the dreadful CBS Top 40 station, KMVQ, which I was listening to because all the other Bay Area stations are dreadful too, and because 99.7 has Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness” in heavy rotation. 72337The ad worked, though. I use eBay constantly. This morning our mailman delivered this completely unnecessary octopus lamp to our door, because I’d finally found one for half the retail price, with free shipping. I’m cheap AND lazy, and I’m really good at shopping.

So I looked into eBay Now. The business model is insane, the logistics are ridiculous, and like getting Webvan to deliver a six-pack of soda in 1998, I’d be happy to use it til they come to their senses. Turns out Uptown Oakland isn’t in the zone yet- but it wasn’t in the Instacart delivery area when a Dropbox dev told me about Instacart in December either.

This very entertaining Fast Company article describes a day in the life of an eBay Now “valet”, and on The Atlantic Cities Emily Badger bounces off the article to articulate the craziness of the model. I don’t really see this one lasting.

Overall, our adventure in using same-day goods and service apps was positive.

I’ll use some of them again; probably not Instacart, because the hidden surcharge totally eliminates the thrill of getting three bags of groceries for fifty bucks at TJs. Lying on the couch, using the remote to Netflix Supernatural through our new WD-TV streaming media box, I felt like I’d had a productive day.

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206

This entry was posted in Tech news of the weird on by .

About Suzanne Forbes

Suzanne Forbes is a traditionally trained figurative artist, writer and bricoleur. She is an expat New Yorker living and thriving in Berlin with her third husband and their two cats. In previous lives she was a courtroom artist for CBS and CNN, a penciller for DC Comics on Star Trek, and a live-drawing chronicler of Bay Area alternative culture.

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