DoorDash partners with Walmart

Another big move in the rapidly consolidating market for home grocery delivery. Walmart will start home delivery in the Atlanta area through a new partnership with DoorDash.

As noted in previous coverage of food and grocery delivery, the Walmart/DoorDash relationship involves a complicated process that includes Walmart staff assembling the order, coordinating with DoorDash drivers to pickup and deliver, and a Walmart-branded delivery experience. DoorDash’s services are treated purely as a commodity added to the process, which minimizes the potential to capture feedback from consumers.

The next evolution of logistics and service management software needs to integrate the people doing the work into this process to build meaningful engagements with consumers. A driver could, for example, ask the customer to check the order. As they do, the driver might collect comments, such as “I forgot to order cheddar cheese” or “These peaches are bruised” for use in follow-up.

Not everyone who orders groceries will be at home when the delivery arrives, certainly, but if Walmart wants to find upselling opportunities, it needs to empower every layer of the delivery infrastructure and service providers with simple apps to capture situational and personalization data to improve the efficiency, satisfaction, and margins.

Can you train contractors without becoming a legal employer?

The gig economy is a powerful force in commodity service markets, such as driving or “ride sharing.” More sophisticated services that require training, which courts have repeatedly ruled put companies in the legal position of employer, creating liability and increasing costs, especially legal costs, will reshape the development of business tools. The evolution of software – it is “eating the world” – points to the solution.

Federal District Court Judge Michael Baylson ruled in mid-April that UberBLACK drivers are not employees of the company because Uber doesn’t exert enough control over their schedules and do not have to report to Uber employees. The Uber app controls the entire engagement between UberBLACK drivers, who can work when they want.

The ruling treats the Uber app as a tool used by the driver to fulfill the contracted service rather than a system of control. While the case may go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and be reinterpreted many times, this distinction is critically important to the future of gig work arrangements.

The Society for Human Resource Management summarizes the scope of control issue: “If the employer will rigidly prescribe the manner in which the work is performed, that weighs toward employee status. Hiring an employee would be the safer course of action. If the organization is concerned only about the final product and does not need to dictate how the worker gets from point A to point Z, an independent contractor may be the preferred approach.”

We need new tools to enable professional-level services, not just simple commodity services, provided by contractors.

Brands have extensively documented, constantly evolving business processes that contractors must be able to follow reliably to deliver a customer experience consistent with their value proposition. With driving from place to place, the problem is simple. Uber and Lyft coordinate three things: Drivers; Cars, and; Passengers. Getting a passenger together with a car and driver to reach a destination is a relatively simple process, though hugely valuable, as evidenced by the companies’ more than $40-billion gross revenues. Likewise, dog-walking, package delivery, and other simple logistical markets.

More complex business processes, such as a sales engagement, retail interactions, professional services such as medical or therapeutic services, however, require a form of knowledge that has not previously been embodied in a simple app, a tool rather than a scope of control. These new software tools require sophisticated inputs, the ability to ask questions or provide information based on the customer’s circumstances and personality, and in many settings, a great deal of unstructured data needed to deliver the experience the way the brand requires.

These interactions cannot demand training before the contractor begins work. Based on repeated rulings, that training imposes a system of control.

Instead, a competent contractor needs to be prepared with general skills that can be applied to using a software tool that guides them through the brand experience in real-time. This demands software developers deeply understand a brand’s business processes to:

  • Guide the contractor through the correct information to share. For instance, if a medical worker on contract talks with a patient, they may need to be able to explain a HIPAA-related document and share it in the form the hospital company requires.
  • Understand feedback from customers inputted by the contractor to suggest media assets, next steps in the brand’s sales process, and other facets of the customer experience to the contractor as they exercise their skilled work.
  • Validate that processes are followed, as well as collect relevant data needed to refine the process in response to customers. The rapid evolution of brand experience demands that this measurement take place, or the company will miss key feedback it needs. The contractor can be coached to capture this data but may not be trained to do so in advance.

This merely summarizes a complex evolutionary challenge for on-demand services. Gig tools will certainly evolve from commodity services to refined high-touch services, such as prepared food delivery or online human services like legal services or therapy, which can be significantly improved by a greater focus on process. The transformation is just starting. I

Scope of control is a changing concept. The more easily a trained human can respond to process-led software, the less likely that person is to be treated by an employee. By moving the process to the edge of the network, into the hands of a skilled human who is able to modulate a branded experience, brands, retailers, and professional services firms can reduce centralized costs and move more compensation to the human provider.

Process-based apps are the path to improved contractor experience and brand experience. It also has the benefit of being less likely to result in labor litigation. We need better tools to complete the foundation of a prosperous gig world where flexibility is the primary driver of when and how people work.

Food Delivery, Part 3: Restaurant Evolution

Prepared food delivered to the home from local chefs and restaurants is the most significant area of investment and activity in food delivery based on capital raised to date. The notion that prepared meals delivered to the diner will supplant home-cooked meals, as well as the need to shop for ingredients, as logistics matures is an article of faith for these companies and their investors.
 

Globally, food delivery companies are worth approximately $19 billion after initial public offerings by GrubHub ($8.7 billion public market cap), Berlin-based Delivery Hero ($8.9 billion), and London’s Takeaway.com ($2.42 billion). U.S. delivery companies have raised $1.45 billion in venture funding, led by DoorDash ($721.7 million), GrubHub, which raised $276.6 million in venture funds before its IPO, Postmates ($278 million), and Freshly ($107 million).

It remains to be seen whether the current $641.53 billion grocery store market, as measured by the U.S. Census Bureau will retain customers or lose them to the $799 billion restaurant industry as it expands into home delivery.

Technology is disintermediating meals and their makers. Logistics systems allow raw ingredients, prepped ingredients, or prepared food to be delivered in comparable timeframes. The introduction of platforms such as GrubHub and UberEATS has disrupted the traditional marketing and sales relationship that the restaurant maintains with the customer. So much of the restaurant experience that has revolved around the physical proximity of diner and server, the locus of upselling to increase average ticket price per diner, must evolve in the age of delivery.

The growth in prepared food delivery justifies that reinvention. As many as 22.3 million U.S. consumers are expected to spend $22.4 billion on delivery food in 2018, according to Statista, which also projects the market will grow to $44.6 billion in 2022. Food delivery is more prominent overseas, for example China’s 2018 delivery revenue alone is expected to be $48.5 billion. For purposes of this analysis, the focus is the U.S. market.

The emerging market for prepared food delivery has focused on two primary approaches: On-demand ordering from existing restaurants ferried by a driver to the home, and; Centralized kitchens offering prepared food through their own or third-party couriers.

Overcoming moving targets, spoiling food

Restaurant delivery is more complicated than grocery and boxed ingredients delivery because it is time-sensitive. Customers who order a prepared meal are waiting for a meal delivery, where grocery delivery can take place in a longer window of time. No grocery delivery service promises service in less than an hour, but every restaurant delivery suffers from each passing minute after it is boxed.

Sour Greenshoots Photography

An hour is an eternity in food service. Many delivery services, notably Uber EATS, emphasize the worst aspects of customer experience by requiring the customer to wait at the front door or curb for the driver. Phone in hand and dressed for the cold, I recently watched on the UberEATS map my dinner’s progress as the driver stopped for a pizza, got stuck in traffic, and ultimately arrived 20 minutes later than promised. The food was cold and my customer experience consisted of the driver’s repeated apologies.

Nonetheless, prepared delivery is growing by leaps and bounds.

The NPD Group, a Chicago-based market research company, reported that delivery sales surged by 20 percent in 2017. App-based orders grew to 51 percent of delivery sales, as well. “Delivery has become a need to have and no longer a nice to have in the restaurant industry,” NPD Group senior vice president of industry relations Warren Solochek said. Diners order delivery or visit restaurants to pick up food more than 1.7 billion times annually in the U.S.

The U.S. market is dominated by GrubHub and UberEATS, which saw 2018 gross food sales of $3.8 billion and $3 billion, respectively. Second Measure, an analytics firm, reports that GrubHub accounts for 52.1 percent of the U.S. delivery market, while UberEATS took 19.9 percent in 2017. DoorDash and Postmates, the next tier of restaurant delivery services that account for 32 percent of the market, are reportedly discussing a merger to hold their position.

After deducting the cost of food, delivery providers take between 25 percent and 30 percent of the cost of a meal, which is tacked on as a fee. Out of this, they pay the courier, their marketing costs, and operating expenses.

GrubHub’s public numbers demonstrate how difficult restaurant delivery can be. While active diners increased by 77 percent in 2017, the company’s revenues reached $783.1 million, up only 26 percent year-over-year. On $3.8 billion in sales, GrubHub eked out a net income of $99 million, a margin of 2.6 percent. UberEATS, which said in December that it is profitable in more than 40 cities globally, did not disclose enough information to calculate a margin, but its delivery fees hover around 30 percent of the meal price.

Platform coordination meets the dinner rush

The traditional restaurant’s business model is under assault because logistics eliminates the ability to plan food purchases based on seating capacity. Restaurants have long been able to estimate how much food they need based on being able to seat and turnover tables a predictable number of times a day. With delivery, demand may soar one day and evaporate the next, leading to more dissatisfied customers on busy days or immense food waste on unexpectedly slow days.

Source: Meal Prep Delivery

Waste compounded by the time element in prepared food delivery increases costs, too. For years, pizza delivery companies have sought ways to keep pies delicious, even going to the extreme of completing cooking in the delivery vehicle. All food, warm or cold, spoils with the passage of time.

The time-honored tradition of sending back a poorly prepared meal is virtually impossible in the delivery era, and it would only amplify the difficulty of earning a profit from deliveries. Nevertheless, we believe diners’ sense of accountability will eventually empower them to send back spoiled food – the service is too expensive to support a “no returns” policy.

Since local restaurants must decide to be on one or all of the local delivery services available, they face a daunting in-restaurant challenge: Managing inbound orders from multiple sources in addition to their management systems. Reuters showed in late 2017 an example of one location with five dedicated tablet devices needed to respond to orders on GrubHub, UberEATS, DoorDash, and other delivery platforms. The integration of delivery services into restaurant management systems should be a prime focus for the major platforms.

The primary argument in favor of the national and global delivery platform brands, such as GrubHub, UberEATS, Postmates, and DoorDash, is their ability to market and attract diners. They have concentrated more on delivery than merchandising and selling restaurants’ unique features. Consequently, specials of the day based on local ingredients or challenging to acquire ingredients such as fresh fish, are deemphasized in the ordering process.

Chefs who build a media persona can leverage the desire to taste their food, but delivery is a departure from the traditional world where chefs and waiters provided extensive information, explaining specials and greeting diners to build word of mouth. All these are absent in restaurant delivery. Customers are not likely to spend additional time while ordering required to upsell to the most profitable dish. Wine and beer sales, a staple of restaurant profit margins, are segregated to specialized delivery services designed to confirm customers are of age to drink. The opportunity to sell a dessert at the conclusion of the meal is missing.

We believe restaurants will need a more dynamic menu and selling system to communicate naturally with diners as they order – it will likely need voice interfaces and real-time chat or conversation. Consultative communication is the essential tool for individual or small chain restaurants to increase their profitability through upselling and specialization.

At larger scales, however, a media-savvy regional chef is enabled to scale their business using a platform in ways that were impossible before.

The old dream from the IBM commercial about selling a guitar to “every person on the Internet” flickers back to life here, but we are sophisticated enough 20 years later to recognize that exclusivity is essential for high-value experience to be attractive. Not everyone wants a guitar, nor do they all want Cat Cora’s cooking. But a lot more would like to try Cat Cora’s meals than can do so today. Connecting and staying engaged with a loyal and growing following based on extensive media asset investment does promise to make some chefs as ubiquitous as McDonald’s or Chipotle, which also have joined the delivery race.

Centralizing local food preparation

Meal times remain relatively fixed around the industrial workday. Such regularity has enabled a promising version of prepared food delivery, the centralized kitchen that prepares and serves meals via courier.

Source: Shopfitting Concepts

Peach, a Seattle-based startup, for example, developed a successful lunch delivery program featuring food from local restaurants prepared in a centralized kitchen. With $10.7 million in funding, it is a small player in an emerging locally focused approach to food preparation that focuses on serving offices with more than 50 workers. In essence, Peach schedules meals ahead of time, and so can order with clear supply requirements in mind and serve out large deliveries to increase efficiency.

Munchery, a San Francisco centralized delivery company assembles many chefs and staff to prepare a wide variety of foods, is taking the concept to the home. The company, with $125.4 million in venture funding to date, offers a wide range of a local food market without having to connect dozens of kitchens to couriers and, ultimately, customers. Like Peach, it enjoys better inventory management while offering a much broader array of foods than a single restaurant could.

Munchery and Peach’s focus on local ingredients also makes this category the most sustainable form of prepared food delivery. As Millennials and Gen-Z age into adulthood, they will demand planet friendly services – 73 percent already do, according to Nielsen – and local sourcing is the most efficient and least environmentally taxing form of food production.

The centralized kitchen approach may also be the path for local restauranteurs to step into competition with national delivery services. Whether by offering their kitchen to share with other chefs or by moving into collective kitchens with a delivery component, local restauranteurs could achieve similar scale advantages as GrubHub or UberEATS. The local chef’s ability to differentiate by celebrating food in season, developing rituals around local foods and in-season specials, place them on a more intimate footing with diners than the national delivery platforms.

As restaurants, which face declining sales as the delivery tide rises, close or consolidate, the centralized kitchen appears poised to be the strategy of necessity for local chefs seeking to earn a living. These facilities, like major national players, must build around robust communication, an extensive library of food-related content, and local reviews and customer word-of-mouth programs that:

  • Provide context and expertise to diners seeking unique, not merely consistent, food experiences;
  • Respond quickly and efficiently to changing food supplies throughout the year;
  • Improve the utilization of food purchased and the profitability of food prepared and delivered;
  • Support the full-meal experience, including beverages paired with foods (which means establishing a method for providing alcohol with the meal), upselling of specials and high-margin dishes such as dessert, and, perhaps, home clean-up after a meal.
  • Provide transparent and fair payment for cooks, couriers, and the enabling technology companies.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll look across the three major categories of food delivery, groceries, pre-prepped boxed ingredients, and restaurant delivery to identify essential themes for future development.

Uber buys electric bike rental startup Jump

Uber today added another commodity service to its quiver of mobility services with its acquisition of Jump, a New York-based provider of dockless ebikes that had previously raised $11.6 million. The deal was reported to be worth more than $100 million.

The 10x premium on capital raised to date, including $10 million from Menlo Ventures in January of this year, buys Uber a fleet of motorized bicycles that can be grabbed from one location and left at another in 40 cities. San Franciscans reportedly love the bikes on the city’s steep hills. Jump, which spent almost a decade using the brand Social Bicycles, charges $2 for 30 minutes, making it a viable alternative for short drives in an Uber, or walking. Here is founder Ryan Rzepecki’s story of the company’s long genesis.

Uber’s strategy is falling back on U.S. markets and focusing more on commodity services rather than increasing specialization, UberEATS notwithstanding because it relies still on a driver and a car more than ensuring meals arrive hot and edible. U.S. cities have struggled to bring sharable bicycles into city centers, but Jump’s “dockless” bikes solve a significant problem. Instead of having to find a bike dock to return a borrowed bike, Jump’s bikes can be parked and left anywhere.

“[O]ur ultimate goal is one we share with cities around the world: making it easier to live without owning a personal car,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in a blog posting. “Achieving that goal ultimately means improving urban life by reducing congestion, pollution and the need for parking spaces.”

Like a car-and-driver awaiting a fare, Jump bikes are a local commodity easily organized by Uber. The acquisition makes sense and plugs an urban customer requirement.

Marketing In A Box: On-Demand Food Delivery Goes Mainstream, Part Two

Continuing our look at the on-demand delivery of food, which is becoming mainstream in 2018, it is time to explore subscription food delivery pioneered by publicly traded Blue Apron and HelloFresh in the U.S. and Europe, respectively.

Boxed meals provide curated ingredients and recipes to cooks who prepare the food at home. It is the second leg of a growing home delivery industry, one that provides potentially powerful marketing advantages compared to grocery delivery (see the previous installment). Like groceries-on-demand, these companies seek to relieve the customer of shopping for the raw materials of a meal. Restaurant delivery, which will be our next subject, seeks to displace food preparation altogether.

The meal-in-a-box model has even captured President Donald Trump’s attention. His administration has suggested “Harvest Boxes” of produce and cheese have been suggested as a new alternative to food stamp programs in the United States. Trump’s idea may be a prescription for monotonous eating straight out of the 1960s, but commercial food boxes have focused on providing variety, intriguing culinary choices, and add-on products, such as wine.

We believe subscription food services are the most flexible marketing platform among the food delivery competitors.

Born when there was an Uber for everything

The subscription food segment emerged in 2012, when HelloFresh and Blue Apron were founded on early enthusiasm for the Uber model. Like other on-demand businesses, these companies built deliberately as the infrastructure and data tools needed to coordinate logistics across the food preparation industry evolved.

HelloFresh, based in Berlin, raised $364.5 million in seven rounds before launching an $393 million IPO in November 2017. HelloFresh stock has added 47.5 percent since its debut. Last month, the company acquired GreenChef, a Denver-based sustainable ingredients subscription food company in its first acquisition.

Boxed Food Customers Skew Younger, Look For More Growth Ahead

Blue Apron, which went public in June 2017, has struggled by comparison. It’s shares are down almost 37 percent since its IPO. The New York-based company had collected $199.4 million in funding over six rounds. The company lost customers during 2017, falling 27.9 percent from 1.036 million customers in the first quarter of 2017 to 746,000 as of December 31, 2017. This may be due to seasonality in Blue Apron’s business – cooks may prefer to shop for holiday meals.

However, HelloFresh says its active customer based increased by 68.6 percent in 2017 to 1.45 million across the U.S. and European markets. For now, HelloFresh is certainly the market leader.

Unlike the market for grocery and restaurant delivery, the boxed food business is not primarily a time-saver at meal-time. As noted previously, shopping takes between 4.45 hours (among men) and 6.35 hours (among women) of time each week.

Boxed food is designed for people who savor cooking and the time it takes. It represents an opportunity to change the mix of products a cook uses, and so should be considered a direct competitor to high-end grocers, such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Scale & Optimization

The on-demand economy is the result of converging logistical, marketing, and data management capabilities. The boxed food delivery model is the most dependent of the emerging food businesses on continuous optimization of its processes because of the higher fixed costs of operating food processing and distribution centers.

Unlike grocery delivery, which is dependent on the stock at a local supermarket, or restaurant deliveries, which also rely on a third-party to gather and prepare food, boxed deliveries are a closed supply chain to be managed. New categories of food may be added, but at the cost of added management overhead associated with food production and safety regulation. Where Instacart can add a product for a consumer by having a contractor-shopper toss it in a grocery cart, box food suppliers must plan to modify their recipes, acquire food, and plan for weekly acquisitions to make a change to their offerings.

Boxed food delivery enjoys few of the scale benefits of on-demand businesses such as Instacart and Uber. Full-time staffing in food delivery is tightly linked to the number of partnerships and supply chain sources that must be managed. Built around distribution centers, these organizations must staff heavily to certify food safety, manage preparation, and ensure timely delivery. Blue Apron reported 3,938 full-time employees in January, 2018, three months after laying off six percent of its workforce.  HelloFresh employed 2,715 at the end of 2017 and added 600 employees with the GreenChef acquisition in March.

HelloFresh, Blue Apron, GreenChef, and others, such as Chef’d, which markets top chef-recommended recipes, or Martha Stewart’s Marley Spoon, which delivers seasonal ingredients, must engage in deep partnerships with growers, distributors and shipping partners to ensure profitability. Like a grocery store, the box delivery companies must work to minimize food waste, which can be a crippling cost. And the boxes used represent a sustainability issue, as they become waste in the consumer’s home after only one use.

Compared to the average revenue per employee in the grocery industry in the fourth quarter of 2017, which was $438,138 according to CSIMarket.com, HelloFresh and Blue Apron have made excellent progress. HelloFresh, at $333,296 per employee, and Blue Apron’s $221,238 per employee are progressing toward parity with grocers. This suggests that with a full range of differentiated menus and established supplier relationships, the companies can compete effectively with both grocery and restaurant delivery as consumers’ eating habits change.

A marketing platform, not simply a fulfillment system

Boxed food is curated food, making the industry a natural marketing platform. Because the delivery box is a marketing stage, in which the customer must be delighted and surprised to feel they’ve received their money’s worth, HelloFresh and its competitors are better positioned to increase sales per customer and to introduce variety into their product.

Being able to add new ingredients, mix in novel recipes, and up-sell complementary products, such as wine to go with a boxed meal, these companies can market more effectively than grocery delivery competitors. By contrast, a grocery delivery company cannot pull out an item their customer explicitly ordered to provide an alternative sample, even if it’s a better flavor or deal. Customers don’t want their choices overruled.

Ingredient box customer engagements are defined by the number of servings to be produced using the ingredients in a box. Two- and four-person packages are the norm in boxed delivery, but the variety of ingredients can be changed daily to accommodate changing tastes. The model also does not rely on the cook to select foods, but offers a “best-of” experience that cooks expect to see change. GreenChef, for example, varies ingredients by season and is exploring local food sourcing in some regions.

HelloFresh reports that it currently is “mostly focused on weeknight dinners” and is experimenting with breakfast, lunch, and weekend premium meals. It distributes seven to 12 different recipes and plans to expand the options. Growing variety will be essential to retaining customers, who can become bored eating the same foods. Selection of more profitable products, premium programs with higher price points, and in-box offers provide subscription box food companies with greater marketing power than delivery-only providers in the grocery and restaurant markets.

The human touch defines curation and it is the soul of marketing.  Boxing foods and recipes, adjusting delivery timing and personalization of box contents to address food allergies, and integrating content, such as chef-lead cooking programs, are pathways to introducing many more products to the customer. These moves will come at scale, as HelloFresh and other experiment with segmentation and improved meal planning, which will amplify the variety of food experiences available.

The box may contain the seeds of a transformation in food marketing. Because of the planning and merchandizing involved in box food delivery, we believe it will remain an important part of alternative food distribution for years to come. Now, newer companies are emphasizing specific cuisines, for example, or the use of sustainable sources. We believe local food boxes can become successful based on direct-selling and grocery partnerships.

Yet the boxed food market will take time to evolve, perhaps more slowly than the contractor-based alternatives. But the prospect of deep curation of food, which can cut waste, improve diet, and reduce the complexity and cost of food supply planning make this a compelling sector for continued investment.

On-Demand Food Delivery Goes Mainstream, Part One: Instacart

During the first quarter of 2018, local on-demand food delivery achieved mainstream status. In response to Amazon.com’s expansion of delivery on the back of its Whole Foods acquisition, WalMart announced that it would increase its delivery services to reach 40 percent of American homes in 2018. But it is Instacart, which today added 55 Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets to its service, which has leapt to the forefront of same-day food delivery.

Over the next several postings, we’ll examine the state of food delivery, how the competition has played out, consolidated, and morphed into several distinct flavors of food-to-the-doorstep. Groceries, pre-packaged foods for preparation, and prepared foods have each spawned intense experimentation to conveniently reach, by our estimate, more than 65 percent of the U.S. population. Compared to only two years ago, when I assessed the availability of on-demand services in the U.S. for BIAKelsey, at a time when only densely urban areas were served, the accessibility of grocery delivery and other on-demand services has increased by twelve-fold from 5.1 percent of Americans.

In 2016, the U.S. American Time Use Survey found that 44.6 percent of Americans (40.3 percent of men and 48.6 percent of women) spent part of each weekday purchasing goods and services, and about 10 percent more time during weekends. The average time a week spend shopping by women that year was 6.35 hours and 4.45 hours among men.

Taking the total employed adult population, approximately 126.4 million people as a base, the time spent on shopping by people who could pay for delivery to use their time in other ways represents 2.17 billion hours of addressable service time for food delivery companies.  We feel this is a conservative estimate, as the partly employed (those working in the gig economy) and retired may be able to trade reasonable delivery fees for additional free time.

Instajuggernaut

Fresh Thyme Farmers Market added Instacart delivery this week.

Although Amazon and WalMart are poised to make significant expansions into grocery delivery, both have struggled with logistics and coordination. WalMart has activated its employees to make deliveries on their way home from work and recently partnered with Uber, while Amazon’s Fresh delivery service has taken strides forward and reversed course several times in the last year as the Whole Foods acquisition’s implications are analyzed. 

Instacart has stayed a determined course, refining its home delivery and shopping experience to establish delivery services in 4,500+ U.S. cities and towns, from Alabaster, Alabama, to Waunakee, Wisconsin.

Instacart raised $200 million in February 2018 to bring its funding to date on a to $874.8 million with a valuation of $4.2 billion. Having started out as a Y Combinator company in 2012, Instacart has kept a small group of top-tier VCs engaged in each round, adding Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, and Kleiner Perkins, followed in the February round by two private equity firms. These are patient investors who poised for a huge payday when the company goes public. Instacart remains quiet on its IPO plans.

Relative to other on-demand companies that continue to burn money to acquire market share, Instacart is an efficient operation because it builds on grocer partnerships that give it access to millions of customers, instead of relying solely on consumers to discover and use the service. The partners launch in-store marketing for Instacart, complemented by Instacart’s online outreach.

Ravi Gupta, Instacart’s CFO told CNBC on the latest funding that the company has “more money than we need” to compete effectively. The reason is simple: Instacart is the promiscuous delivery partner. Instacart has partnered with grocery chains large and small, including Safeway, Costco, Whole Foods, and many others. Amazon and Walmart, by contrast, must rely on their own chains’ traffic to get consumer delivery orders.

Grocery delivery is repeating an earlier platform economy pattern, the walled garden. Amazon and WalMart are seeking to enclose their shoppers in a comfortable but closed garden of consumer delights while Instacart can burst through brand limitations to shop multiple stores, if necessary, to cater to exactly what the consumer wants.

Personalization also brings us to the challenge we see for grocery delivery in particular. Instart has limited promotional capabilities and suggesting products to a shopper using their phone to repeat an order can be perceived as interruptive, using their time to say “No” to things they don’t want.

Traditional marketing by grocery stores tended to rely on weekly pricing cadences supported by mailers and inserts in local papers. Effective though it was, it also produced over-stocking of some items and understocking of others, delivering waste and dissatisfaction among shoppers who couldn’t get what they wanted when visiting the store. Rain-checks for sale prices still take time at the cashier counter, and food rots in bins behind the store when it turns out shoppers didn’t want as much produce or specially priced bread as planned.

Instacart’s challenge will be how to provide their shopping staff insights into suggesting products to consumers to anticipate their willingness to try a new fruit or a different, more sustainable packaging for meat, milk, or other wasteful containers. Marketers will also need to understand how to use sampling — dropping “Try Me” products into an order with a simple mechanism for adding it to future orders if the consumer likes it. Searching for a new product will not be attractive. If a customer wants a sample flatbread pizza they received as a promotion, it must be suggested the next time they pick up their phone to shop.

This brings Instacart back to an element of traditional groceries which keeps people coming in to query the butcher, the produce staff, and in-store experts about how to prepare a meal or a new ingredient. Instacart will need to enable its delivery staff with contextual information to help improve the shopper’s experience politely and successfully. The oceans of transactional data already piled up in grocery chain systems will need to be analyzed and linked to the conversation Instacart has with shoppers through its app and when the Instacarter is standing at the customer’s front door.

Time to Rethink: Uber Autonomous Car Kills Pedestrian

Source: The Star Online

The myth of perfect safety in a world transported by autonomous cars has endured until today. A pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, was killed by an Uber autonomous car with a driver at the wheel on Sunday night. The company suspended testing throughout the U.S. and Canada as a result.

Perfect safety in complex systems is impossible, yet autonomous car developers have insisted that no one could be hurt by a computer-controlled car as a matter of faith. Visions of perfectly ordered autonomous vehicles avoiding humans without fail set safety expectations far too high, and the industry, not just Uber, will pay for dealing in superlatives instead of reality. 

Autonomous cars will improve their safety performance, just as overall driving safety has continuously increased since it became a regulatory priority the 1960s. The U.S. currently enjoys a traffic death rate of 1.25 per 100 million vehicle miles driven. Waymo, Google’s autonomous car group, had counted four million miles driven by November 2017. Despite this lack of comparable miles driven, absurd claims, such as “Google’s Self-Driving Cars Are Ridiculously Safe” have become common

Reality bites hard. Uber CEO Dara Kosrowshahi tweeted his regrets to the victim and their family. He needs to visit the site of the accident, get a complete review of the circumstances, and reset safety expectations accordingly. This may require the company fallback to emphasizing human drivers over self-driving cars for the time being.

Autonomous car safety is in its infancy. Now that a real-world death has proven the technology needs to advance substantially to best human driving safety, ridesharing and delivery services will need to reconsider the scope of testing, and the timelines promised for the general introduction of the technology.

This is not an-anti technology view, it’s a realistic product safety criticism that will deeply affect people’s views of the companies hoping to deliver autonomous vehicles over the next couple years. Stop marketing autonomous vehicles until they can beat human drivers consistently, but keep developing and testing in safe situations. 

As autonomous cars become available, we think many consumers will depend on local influencers who experience the rides, share their stories, and package mobility for the consumer’s comfort level. If a person is afraid of being in a self-driving car, there is still an opportunity to provide products or services delivered by autonomous vehicles. The solution will be person-to-person marketing that finds those first uses for smart vehicles that consumers will accept. 

Lyft Embraces Consumer Subscriptions

Lyft is reportedly testing consumer subscriptions for rides in several price ranges designed to get people to skip using a personal car. Trips included in the subscription must be for distances that cost less than $15 for non-subscribers, according to Mashable. You can check how far you can get for $15 using the Lyft Fare Estimator.

Subscribers whose rides cost more than $15 would receive discounts of $15 off longer rides. Lyft’s target audience is the urban and suburban consumer who would instead leave their car at home.  Some of the offers made to users featured a monthly $199 plan that includes 30 rides (Las Vegas) while others received up-front payment offers for seven rides for $50 and $400 for 60 trips. 

Lyft is taking this model seriously. It may provide the kind of simple calculation that consumers can adopt when they compare the cost of using a car to get around town in a Lyft. The subscription model, which expires monthly, may look like the better deal.

But “breakage,” the write-off of unused service each month, could result in substantial revenue for Lyft that consumers see as lost value because they spend the money without getting the benefit of rides. There is no way for consumers to squeeze every cent of value out of the system without assiduously scheduling rides up to, but not over, the Lyft limits.

Breakage is a familiar pricing model in online services. For example, Dropbox For Business Standard costs $12.50/mo./user for two TB storage. However, most users won’t store anywhere near two TB of data in Dropbox, creating breakage that can be worth up to $10 a month to the company. That difference between the storage capacity paid for and what is used — the breakage – subsidizes the free Dropbox offer of two GB for that draws in paid users. Lyft is taking a page from an old playbook, and it is likely to work.

Up-front pricing, such as $400 for 60 rides, preserves the rider’s spending for actual use. But these steeper prices can be designed to push consumers to the more profitable breakage model. 

While Uber has started to build its car service into consumer product and personal services programs, such as its partnership with bgx, a salon company that will send a stylist via Uber to the customer or ferry the customer to a salon, Lyft is focused on a more tangible feature, the consumer’s budget. Uber’s approach will drive costs toward service providers who bundle mobility while Lyft’s will insulate ride

This marks a significant moment in the mobility wars. It shifts the convenience value proposition toward a price-based value proposition.  Lyft’s subscription model makes choosing to forgo owning a car for people who need some rides in an urban area a simple matter of budgeting. Choosing to spend $199 a month to have a car available or trips of four or five miles, which approximates most urban travel needs, is more straightforward than buying, parking, servicing, and fueling a car. 

On-demand in small business: Four ideas for growth

Where is your place in the on-demand economy? Many workers and small businesses, including retailers, see the encroachment of Amazon, WalMart, and myriad other services as destructive. Yet media-enabled global brands are consistently challenged when engaging home- and office-based customers. The future of your business, whether a physical location or as an independent contractor, depends upon finding new niches where human expertise overwhelms online-only engagement.

Non-manufacturing businesses account for about 80 percent of the U.S. economy and are reported by the Institute for Supply Management as growing strongly for 97 consecutive months. Amazon, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Instacart and other services seem poised to steal business from local experts, but we think that by studying their approaches, small business and independent businesspeople will find greater revenue opportunities and a foundation for maintaining a trusted relationship with consumers. There are many new niches in the ever-specializing economy.

Last week, Uber announced beauty salon network bgX had become the first “business that has fully integrated with Uber for Business.” If you are seeking styling or a blow-out before an important meeting, “The platform will provide the convenience of having premium salon styling delivered directly to women at home, work or at a hotel.” The stylist comes to the customer if they happen to be in London, Paris, or Dubai. It’s a small footprint, but bgX could build geographic presence with time and marketing, adding cities with high concentrations of luxury styling customers.

Services consistently add greater value than other sectors of the U.S. economy

Uber’s head of Uber for Business in Europe told the Evening Standard that 65,000 businesses have begun to integrate Uber services. Health services and elder care home companies pioneered the gig-sourcing local drivers to bring patients to appointments and ferrying retirees to an from shopping, events, and around town. Westfield Malls set up Uber transit centers in 33 of its malls last Fall. Yet, a survey last year showed that the majority — 73 percent — of small businesses used no gig services.

Likewise, Amazon extended its Whole Foods home delivery service last week. Adding San Francisco and Atlanta, as well as adding a Prime discount of five percent on Whole Foods purchase, the once virtual giant is developing a physical footprint in local markets. With Amazon Go stores prepped to serve walk-in-walk-out shoppers, potentially as ubiquitously as 7-Eleven does today, the Bezos machine is targeting the consumer on the go while catering to their home and office needs with Prime and Prime for Business memberships.

As a small business or an independent worker thinking about how to compete against these global brands, focus on where the human-to-human gap has opened as a consequence of automation. Logistics have been improved dramatically, but feedback, recycling, and recirculation of products all remain stubbornly local in nature. A salesperson is still the best way to capture feedback because they bring the ability to ask questions and report back non-verbal signals. This is where a massive opportunity remains for individuals in the gig economy.

Scale, surprisingly, is the reason the Small Business opportunity is growing. The delivery of services and products-as-a-service require deep personalization. Mass personalization will remain a matter of demographic or psychographic templates that must be tuned in the last-mile to engage the specific customer’s values. 

The Minte, an apartment cleaning service in Chicago, demonstrates how small businesses can find and fill gaps by selecting a target market to serve better than national brands can today. The company identified apartment buildings as a market where it could rapidly lower the cost of service by increasing customer penetration in a single location. 

“Once you’re in one building, all the others start coming to you,” The Minte CEO Kathleen Wilson told BuiltInChicago. “It really just exploded.” Call it “share of locality” thinking. Instead of simply thinking of gaining more of a consumer’s wallet, look to expand a business’ relationship with customers’ neighbors.

Word-of-mouth and local selling of these services don’t happen entirely online. People make the sale and pass customers along based on their satisfaction with a service. The focus on increasing Share of Locality inverts the marketing challenge. Small promotional and direct-sales engagements can kickstart a local on-demand business. If you are looking at the on-demand economy as a looming threat that will wipe out your local services market, study the gaps opening between big brands and local buyers to find a new niche. 

  1. SMBs should position themselves as a local connector between global brands and customers. Uber, for example, has a massive local targeting investment that relies on its teams localizing and distributing marketing offers based on geotagging and artificial intelligence.SMBs have extensive insight into local demand and can tap into, for example, mobility services such as Lyft, Maven, and Uber, providing deeply contextualized local offers.One small business may offer Lyft rides to customers who want to shop at their location while another may choose to offer in-home delivery. Both, however, bring a local customer to the relationship with a mobility provider that can be mined for additional service opportunities. If a customer likes dinner delivered every evening, would they also like a housecleaner to come tidy up after the meal? Assembling these local services, consolidating them into a single point of contact and feedback for global brands, is a defensible position in the market.
  2.  Shopping destinations should consider aggregating delivery opportunities. Amazon has begun installing Amazon Lockers in Whole Foods stores, allowing shoppers to pick up online orders while at the store. Groups of retailers and service providers need to look at the businesses near them to understand where they can consolidate the delivery of goods and services. With improved logistics and retail management systems, a local store could become the destination for picking up a new product and receiving hands-on support and training for the consumer. Expertise is the rarest commodity. Small business is the most distributed approach to expertise delivery, which has been the foundation of consumer trust for generations. If your small business is isolated from others but draws regular customer traffic, can you use Uber or Lyft to “do the shopping” for a customer while they have their hair cut, their car serviced, or while they learn a new skill in a small training center attached to a local mall?
  3. SMBs and workers should focus on excellent service and enduring customer relationships. Today, gig work is treated as a commodity, and it results in lower wages as more workers join. However, consumers prefer trusted providers, especially for personal services. As the on-demand approach to work expands, small business and labor both need to leverage the trust they develop with local consumers in order to build their pricing power.Differentiation based on service level and trust will increase earnings. At the very least, a highly regarded local source of service or product expertise — the person who sold the customer their last three lawn and yard tools or the regular provider of the perfect massage — can earn more based on increased demand. Going further, the local expert service provider can follow the “breakage model” adopted by many companies, such as DropBox. They charge a little more for a lot more service on the bet that most of the services will not be consumed. A local SMB service provider, for example, could offer priority callback and service visits to “members” who pay a small monthly fee to jump to the front of the line when they need help. 
  4. Tie into the on-demand economy and push the limits. Uber for Business, for instance, has extensive information about the routes and timing for deliveries but does not have a personal relationship with local consumers outside the Uber app. Like salon company bgX, look at what your business, or you as a service provider, can deliver and seek to be the local partner for on-demand product manufacturers and local mobility providers. You will find that there is no local sales interface to collect feedback from potential customers and expertise is unevenly distributed.Your ability to use multiple on-demand services is critical to success, so mix and match aggressively. Attack the problem of how to get a product from point A to point B, to onboard a customer to a new service, such as home security DIY installers who need to train customers to manage their security systems, or the need to efficiently deliver for hands-on expertise, whether a doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, or any other person-to-person service. Small business and individual workers can take a robust part in extending services revenue, by tying expertise to products, fulfilling delivery, service, and post-purchase support locally, and thinking systematically about where value can be added in the on-demand economy.

MIT Paper Suggests the Gig Economy Is An Illusion

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research has released a paper that purportedly blows a hole in the ship of the gig economy. The findings are already much contested, and I’ll lay out in this posting where more research is needed, the flaws in the paper’s methodology, and the policy implications of the MIT CEEPR report.

Here is the damning summary of the paper’s findings:

Results show that per hour worked, median profit from driving is $3.37/hour before taxes, and 74% of drivers earn less than the minimum wage in their state. 30% of drivers are actually losing money once vehicle expenses are included. On a per-mile basis, median gross driver revenue is $0.59/mile but vehicle operating expenses reduce real driver profit to a median of $0.29/mile. For tax purposes the $0.54/mile standard mileage deduction in 2016 means that nearly half of drivers can declare a loss on their taxes. If drivers are fully able to capitalize on these losses for tax purposes, 73.5% of an estimated U.S. market $4.8B in annual ride-hailing driver profit is untaxed.

There are several underlying problems with these findings, ranging from the way that the researchers characterized the share of earnings from driving to the research team’s conclusion that because drivers can take the standard mileage deduction when calculating their taxes the on-demand mobility business goes mostly untaxed. Uber’s chief economist, Johnathan Hall, examined the report’s findings in a Medium posting on Sunday, suggesting the estimated earnings are deeply flawed.

The authors fail to note that every transportation provider, from a Lyft driver and local taxi to a long-haul trucker or local salesperson, may take a $0.54 cents-per-mile deduction on every mile they drive. By extension, the MIT research is arguing that all mileage deductions are a form of subsidy rather than a recognized cost of doing business. There is a substantial debate to be had about the mileage deduction’s sustainability, but these research judges that policy debate with an emphatic assessment of its own that is not supported by the data or current law.

The full research report will not be available for six months, as it has been distributed to CEEPR’s sponsors and remains inaccessible to the public. We think that’s counter-productive, as it prevents a full assessment of the data gathering and findings.

What stands out for us is CEEPR’s comparison of Driving Costs and Driving Revenue without regard for the number of hours driven in the available data. Uber’s critique of the research revolves around how drivers characterized the share of revenue they earn from driving. CEEPR’s methodology uses qualitative expressions, e.g., “very little” or “around half” of the respondent’s income attributed to the share of income earned from driving both with and without distinctions between all income from on-demand work or any questions about the specific number of hours driving.

We need to see the full data set and the research paper. However, it appears that based on these qualitative assessments by drivers, the MIT team used hard statistical categories to discount reported earnings, apparently by 50 percent or more from what drivers said. Uber argues that the methodology builds in a 58.5 percent discount on actual earnings. We understand this is a conservative statistical approach to take. However, it seems to have reduced the real income reported because the number of hours driven to earn any income isn’t factored in. MIT CEEPR should release the full report so that others can review the methodology.

Drivers in Las Vegas responded to the report in this ABC15 news report. Admittedly, this is anectdotal feedback, but it does reflect the fact that drivers who treat their on-demand work as a business appear to be earning more than minimum wage. Infrequent drivers, who cannot expense much of their automotive financing and care costs, certainly don’t make as much after deductions as full-time drivers.

In more than 100 conversations with Lyft and Uber drivers, I’ve found that the drivers typically earn more than $18 an hour, and those who drive full-time or near that level do report having an economically satisfying experience in most cases. More drivers report that ride-sharing is their primary job, as well. That said, a significant minority of these drivers reported that they commuted 100 miles or more to major cities to work for three-to-five days straight, while sleeping in their cars, to earn a viable living for their family back home.

Gigging isn’t perfect, there is plenty of room for improvement. This paper adds to the controversy and requires full disclosure of the data to support the discussion about how the economy can evolve for fairness and prosperity among workers.

Every driver should be treating their ride-sharing work as a business, taking the maximum appropriate tax benefits for mileage, writing off car payments and repair to the extent that they are attributable to ride-sharing revenue.