A ride-along with eBay Now

When eBay joined the same-day delivery fad sweeping through online commerce, it upped the ante. eBay wouldn’t just deliver on the same day — it would deliver within the same hour.

While Wal-Mart and Amazon continue wrestling with the challenges of getting purchases to customers in 24 hours, eBay is promising (most) deliveries in 60 minutes or less. It was, it seemed, a promise made to be broken. When eBay launched the service in San Francisco last August, analysts raised their eyebrows, and cautioned that the endeavor would be costlier and trickier than eBay was prepared for.

But less than nine months after its debut, eBay Now seems like a well-oiled personal-shopper and delivery machine. Not only do eBay Now couriers manage to take customer orders, shop and deliver purchases in 60 minutes or less, but perhaps more surprisingly, there seems an insatiable demand among Bay Area consumers who really, really want stuff in less than an hour.

I went on a ride-along with eBay Now in San Francisco to check out the service for myself. On Thursday afternoon, I climbed in the backseat of the SUV belonging to 25-year-old Audrey Zupancic, who started working for eBay Now in November, to wait for her first order. Within a few minutes, Zupancic had her first order of the day. It was from first-time customer Greg Roberts, who needed printer paper and envelopes, and he needed them now.

So we zoomed off to Office Depot, where Zupancic made a beeline for the paper section. Using the eBay Now app that stores the customer’s detailed order, she picked out the exact printer paper — recycled — and envelopes — business size — that Roberts wanted. Zupancic paid with a PayPal card, which eBay preloads with the exact amount of the purchase.

Then it was time to drive up and down San Francisco’s hills, searching for Roberts’ home tucked away on a hard-to-find side street in Potrero Hill. Even after a few wrong turns, we arrived at his front door 40 minutes after Roberts placed the order on eBay Now.

Roberts ignored the first knock, thinking, he said later, there was no way the delivery had arrived so quickly. He said he was in the middle of planning a big event in New York when he ran out of printer paper, and didn’t have time to run to the store.

Customer No. 2  was Heidi Archer, a web designer who had just settled in to work at a cafe in South Park when she realized she had forgotten the charger for her MacBook Air. As we headed to Best Buy, Archer called Zupancic directly to give more details on exactly which charger she needed.

About 20 minutes later, we found Archer at a table outside a cafe and delivered the charger. She said she had thought about hopping on the bus and going to the Apple store, but the bus fare would have been about as much as eBay Now’s $5 delivery fee. (Although the charger cost almost $80.)

Zupancic’s exchanges with customers more closely resembled a neighbor dropping off a cup of sugar than a retail associate making a sale. You could easily forget that this is delivery business, and not Zupancic doing a favor for an old friend in a jam. And despite the San Francisco traffic, wrong turns and search for parking, Zupancic’s delivery time was quicker than most pizza restaurants.

eBay Now drivers will deliver to wherever the customer is — Zupancic said she once delivered cups and Band-Aids to Dolores Park. And with the exception of one unsettling delivery in a back alley in Chinatown, she hasn’t ever felt in danger. She also works the day shifts, so she’s not driving alone at night.

Zupancic is typical of eBay Now drivers — she’s a part-time student and mother to a young child, and needs a job with flexible hours and short shifts. She’s savvy with the eBay apps and can motor easily through the congested city. But I was left unsettled by the amount of time Zupancic, and presumably other eBay drivers, spends on her phone while driving. The demands of her job require her to text, make and answer calls, and check the eBay Now app almost continuously from behind the wheel.

She hasn’t gotten a ticket, she said. Yet.

eBay executives say they “encourage all drivers to put safety first” and ask them to use headphones when making calls. David Ramadge, director for eBay Now, said while drivers might be tempted to multi-task to serve customers more quickly, they are instructed to follow traffic laws.

But the eBay Now app drivers use makes it difficult — nearly impossible — to follow the rules of the road. Zupancic said that between responding to customers and getting updates on orders and delivery directions, she needs to spend a lot of time typing on her phone. If she pulled over each time, she’d have a tough time making it to customers in 60 minutes.

And then eBay Now might have to rename itself eBay Soon, which, let’s face it, doesn’t have quite the same ring.


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