Uber’s Ice Cream Stunt and the Future of Get-It-Now Local Commerce

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Everyone likes ice cream. And everyone likes Uber, the technology world’s favorite  private driver-on-demand-via-your-smartphone-service. The two together are like peanut butter in chocolate. How do I know this? On Friday, July 13, Uber launched a publicity stunt by hiring out a small fleet of ice cream trucks to deliver on-demand cool treats to cyber-savvy city dwellers in eight cities. The timing could not have been better. In the Big Apple, the media center of the universe, the mercury clocked out at 95 degrees.

Uber casually announced the stunt earlier that week and the word spread like wildfire. The result? Utter pandemonium. Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree with accounts of happy Uber users noshing on ‘scream. FastCompany wrote a column telling Uber to stick to its knitting — car service. One dude I know in S.F. pushed the “order” button on the Uber app over 1,000 times in a vain attempt to get a truck to come to his ‘hood and disgorge five choice frosty treats for $12 (plus some schwag tossed in).  Thank God Uber built its whole app on Node.js to handle the scale.

So what the hay? This is a hyperlocal pub. Who cares about Uber? Amazon has been making noises about hyperlocal delivery. And there are other signs of an awakening of the ghosts of Kozmo.com. The Uber-for-bike-messengers service PostMates quickly figured out that it was making a lot of money on restaurant deliveries and launched GetItNow, an app that lets users buy anything anywhere and have it delivered to their door for a small fee.

The difference between now and the crash of Kozmo (and UrbanFetch)? The smart phone. Now riders (or drivers, in the case of Uber) can course-correct mid-stream to pick up orders and optimize their routes. For its part, GetItNow and PostMates run with dynamic pricing algorithms that take into account various factors to better size service pricing to actual cost. This was something that was not possible before with first generation bike messenger instant delivery services like Kozmo.

And here’s where the hyperlocal comes in. Guess what, urban America? Instant delivery of local goods is right around the corner — in fact, its here for a lot of you already. PostMates could easily flip a switch and tap into the fleets of courier vans that cruise the cities with same-day deliveries, putting a man with a van on the same footing as UPS and Federal Express (right down to the turn-by-turn algorithms to minimize time-killing left turns). Or they could jack into OpenTable with an “Order It Now!” button that lets you circumvent the pain of downloading the PDF, picking up the phone, giving the credit card, etc. Sure, you can get any food delivered now but its not as smooth and easy (as in, a few clicks) as what GetItNow offers.

With instant delivery, the local advertising market comes alive all of a sudden. Because now huge chunks of commerce where Amazon has stomped out mom-and-pops now becomes viable again because, at least for now — Amazon can’t get it to you same day, if you ab-fab-gotta-have-it-now-now-now. This trickles down into new reasons for mom-and-pops to, you guessed it, advertise online! So I may be getting ahead of myself but I think Uber and ice cream is a great sign of things to come when mom-and-pops get their mojo back and the local ad market gets a big boost when it actually starts to make sense for many local businesses to amp up their ad spend and fulfill their customers’ jones, pronto.

Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com. The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.