1:28 p.m. Heading north on 6th Avenue at 18th Street.
"Whenever you get orders for condoms and lube, those customers expect you to be there within an hour."
Kaushik Mishra is power-walking uptown. We've just left eBay's office near Union Square in Manhattan, and already he's sweating in the pavement-melting, 90-degree heat. Mishra is a courier with eBay Now, the e-commerce giant's same-day delivery service, and he has the uniform to prove it: bulky black messenger bag, T-shirt, gym shorts, and a pair of Lakers-style Air Jordans. We've just received an order from a customer in Brooklyn Heights. Thankfully it's not of the sexual variety—instead, it's a request for nail polish, acetone, and cycling shorts—but that doesn't mean we're not huffing it up miles of city blocks.
The courtesy comes as part of the growing trend of "instant gratification." After years of being spoiled by the Internet age, when almost all online content—news, photos, music, movies—became available at the push of a button, consumers now want the same luxuries afforded to them offline. There was once a time when companies like UrbanFetch and Kosmo offered similar services, but now newer players are experimenting with how to solve the problem of real-world "instant gratification," from Seamless to Uber. In retail, corporate juggernauts like Amazon and Walmart are attacking the space, as are startups like Postmates and TaskRabbit. But rarely do we get to see what it takes to actually build these solutions—and whether these services are scalable or even sustainable, in large cities and small towns. To gain more insight into the future of retail, Fast Company tagged along with Mishra as he went on his rounds.
The concept behind eBay Now is simple: Order goods online to have them delivered to your door in about an hour. The company has partnered with a growing list of big-box retailers, such as Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot, where customers can purchase everything from tablets to vacuums to laundry detergent. For a $5 fee (not including tip) and $25 minimum order, eBay Now's "valets," which include couriers traveling by foot, bicycle, and in some instances car and taxi, will personally deliver the items to you. The service is currently available in certain parts of New York City and the Bay Area, but is rolling out to more locations in the coming future.
It may sound unnecessary, slothful even, but the service is catching on, according to eBay, and yielding some surprising orders. "We've been doing some crazy shit: 40-inch TVs, 60-inch TVs, and we're getting a lot of air conditioners," one eBay Now valet told me. Added another, "I once delivered a 50-something-inch TV, a PlayStation 3, four game controllers, and five games. I had to take a cab."
Mishra, my valet for the day, is no different, having lugged around his share of microwaves and air conditioners. "The craziest order I've had was when some guy bought four tablets, with keyboards and cases for all of them," he says. "I showed up to his door in TriBeCa and he was like, 'Oh, some new toys to play with!' It came out to $2,000."
Mishra, 20, is a "walker" with eBay Now, meaning he spends all his time on foot, often shoving a hand truck. He's a smart, affable guy, who is exceedingly polite and attending the New School on a full scholarship—eBay Now serves as his job during the summer and school year. It's flexible enough for him to find time to do homework, while lucrative enough to pay the bills. "It's a tough job on a summer day, when it's 90 degrees outside like now, and you're on the subway, and you have to carry this 40-pound AC up and down the stairs while people look at you funny," he says. "But I feel like my job matters more when I'm delivering someone an air conditioner, as opposed to delivering them toilet paper." (An eBay representative explained Fast Company that "Anything over 30 pounds requires the valet to take car.")
We're currently trucking up to Kmart on 34th Street—15 blocks north and one avenue west, or roughly a mile from our departure point at eBay Now's office. Mishra would normally be racing ahead, but he's slowed his pace for me. I've already chugged my water.
Mishra dislikes delivering items in the summer—"the subways are so hot," he says—but the year-round service isn't much more pleasant in the winter, when he must traverse through icy streets and icier winds, and battle crowds during the holiday season. Though eBay is affiliated with its brick-and-mortar retail partners, the relationship garners the company's valets no advantages over average shoppers, meaning Mishra still has to wait in long lines, often several times per day, even at the same store. "It's insane," Mishra says. "Some of us were doing 80 hours a week." (The same eBay rep clarified that "No valet works more than 40 hours a week. On average, the valets log in 23 hours a week.")
1:52 p.m. Inside Kmart at 34th Street & 7th Avenue.
After 22 minutes of walking, we arrive at Kmart, where the air conditioning is a welcome relief. No time to rest, though—the clock is ticking, and Mishra's instincts seem to immediately kick in. We're there for the nail polish and cycling shorts, and while Mishra knows most store layouts, he's not as familiar with this particular Kmart. His first step is to run to a sales clerk for help locating our order items.
Surprisingly, eBay's Kmart affiliate was not much help. I figured the process would be similar to that of FreshDirect, with grocery items boxed and readied for shipment. But I was shocked to learn that Mishra was treated no differently than any other person in the store—he was simply shopping on the behalf of this eBay Now customer, picking out items one by one.
First up: women's cycling shorts. Mishra finds a Kmart employee and asks where we can find them. "For ladies?" the employee asks, somewhat taken aback, before pointing us to the women's section. We run a few aisles over and begin rifling through racks of various styles. This Kmart is a complete mess, and as a dated Backstreet Boys hit plays in the background, Mishra hurriedly swats through a maze of bikinis, like a Marine cutting through thick jungle brush in Vietnam.
I found the experience of shopping for women's clothing disorientating and slightly ungentlemanly, not least because we had to call the customer earlier to ask for her size. But this is child's play for Mishra. "We do underwear orders more than you think," he chuckles. "I will admit that I have called my mom before about it, when someone ordered bras and I had no idea what to do."
We sift through more aisles but no luck: The bike shorts are nowhere to be found, despite being listed in Kmart's online inventory. Five minutes down the shitter.
We're instantly off chasing the next item: Sally Hansen nail polish. Mishra and I aren't experts in this category either. A Kmart salesperson tells us we'll find it in Kmart's health and beauty section, wherever that is. This place is a Bill Talen nightmare: a combination of Toys "R" Us, Filene's Basement, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. We hop down the broken escalator and search through the cavernous floor of endless aisles. It seems we're in a section devoted to bicycles, barbecue accessories, and laser tag guns.
Another five minutes slip by before Mishra stops and says, "Wait, it goes farther down?" We soon leap down another broken escalator to the next basement level. We're now very deep below the Manhattan streets—this must be where Joe Biden is hidden away in the event of a terrorist attack.
Finally we come upon the cosmetics section. One hiccup: There are shelves and shelves with dozens of styles of nail polish. Mishra pulls out his phone and tries to determine the right type of Sally Hansen. "It's like a teal? Let me call her—thank god I have service down here," he says. The phone rings. "Hey! This is Kaushik from eBay. What color nail polish did you have in mind? Oh, mint green? A dark green mint. Okay."
Mishra tells her that we were unable to find the compression shorts. Forget it, the customer says. We finally stumble upon the elusive Sally Hansen dark green mint nail polish. Conveniently, we locate the acetone in the next aisle, with the help of another Kmart employee.
We climb up the escalators with the nail polish and nail polish remover in hand, our treasure hunt complete. After waiting in line behind six other customers, we get to the cashier, where Mishra pulls out his phone and futzes with the eBay Now app. He removes the bike shorts from the order; the app crashes and is reloaded; Mishra loads the payment to his eBay card and swipes it; he takes a screenshot of the order and then snaps a picture of the physical receipt.
We're done with purchasing. Our results: 22 minutes of walking; 24 minutes of in-store browsing; two calls to the customer; and assistance from four Kmart employees. Total order cost: $6.72.
2:16 p.m. Somewhere below Penn Station.
Mishra doesn't do all deliveries on foot. Our final destination is in Brooklyn Heights, which means we have to hop on the train to the Clark Street stop, six subway stations away. We grab a seat on the train, next to a UPS deliveryman heading home from work, and finally have a second to relax. Mishra has made this same trip before, to this same customer. It's normally faster, he says. It's also a relatively easy order.
"It can get a little tiring," he acknowledges. "If we're real busy, and I have to go to a Target in Harlem, only to have to make a delivery down to the Financial District, and then get an order that takes me right back up to Harlem—that's frustrating. There have been a few orders that come in at 8:30 p.m., right before we close, and I've had to go from Atlantic Center in Brooklyn to Inwood on 207th Street in Manhattan. That's two hours just to get there, so by then it's 10:30, I'm off work, but I still have to travel an hour to get home."
Mishra isn't complaining—he likes the job, and the tips are often decent. (Valets say they've been tipped anywhere from $20 to $50 for delivering heavier, expensive items like TVs.) He also enjoys the challenge of rapid deliveries, and often competes with his friends to see who can deliver items faster.
His parents, for one, are happy he has a job, though his father is slightly confused by the need for eBay Now. "My parents are immigrants, and my dad is old-school: When he moved to this country, he did manual labor for 15 years," Mishra explains. "He's not concerned with the job itself; he's more so concerned that people are becoming this lazy."
Our subway screeches to a stop in Brooklyn Heights and we start trekking south. We have nearly another mile of walking to go, but it's more pleasant than bumping our way through midtown Manhattan. Here, on leafy sidewalks under the shade of brownstones, it starts to make sense why Mishra enjoys this excuse to explore new neighborhoods.
We finally arrive at our destination along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Cars zip by as we both drip with sweat. Total time, according to my count: one hour and 22 minutes. The customer is happy enough receiving her nail polish—she'll likely place another order for her bike shorts later, from a different courier and Kmart. She gives Mishra a tip and we start walking back to the subway station, to prepare for another order. "Four more of these, and you'll experience a full day of work," Mishra beams. "I sometimes do seven or eight miles on my feet."
As we reach the subway station another mile of walking later, we hear the train screaming to a halt downstairs. Mishra's ears perk up. He's had to drag me around the city at a slower pace, but I'm no longer a rookie. He turns to me and asks, "Now, should we try to do it the real way?" He smiles and starts sprinting to catch the train.
I can barely keep up.
[Photos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company]
A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photos by Joel Arbaje for Fast Company;