Mobile Is Always Local: Thoughts on the Future of Online-to-Offline Commerce

The other day, Uber Eats announced a new service that struck me at first as a little surprising but, once I absorbed the idea, seemed strangely inevitable. In select cities like Austin and San Diego, you can now order food ahead of time, monitor your order status, and arrive at the restaurant just in time to begin dining, your table ready and waiting for you. This on-demand dine-in service is meant to remove time and effort from the experience of eating out, and it may also help restaurants fill empty tables during off-peak times by enabling special time-based incentives. 

Image courtesy of TechCrunch

In fact, as with everything else, there was already an app for that. A little-known company called Allset has been trying to sell the same idea for a few years now. But the marketing muscle of Uber Eats, now third in on-demand delivery behind DoorDash and Grubhub, surely gives the concept a greater chance of catching on. Certainly, popular order-ahead services like those offered by Starbucks and Chipotle’s branded apps have already paved part of the way.

When I say it seems inevitable that an app would eventually “solve” waiting for your food at restaurants, I have two things in mind. The first is a quote from Twitter co-founder Ev Williams that, to me, strikes at the root of contemporary trends in innovation. The quote comes from a talk Williams gave in 2013 at a tech conference in Portland: “Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company. Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time … and use modern technology to take out steps.”

Williams was describing a change in his own thinking. While he once felt the promise of the internet was its ability to invent new forms of human experience, he had changed his mind. Now, he believed the internet’s real potential lay in training its immense advantages in speed and connectivity toward basic desires and needs, such as the need for food, shelter, companionship, and transport.

In fact, in this six-year-old talk, he cites the recently launched Uber as a prime example of the kind of thinking he advocates. “How old is the desire of getting from here to there?” he asks. “How hard was it really to do? They took out some steps in that process … They formed a connection between you and the driver.”

Williams sums up this ethos as one that drives us toward ever greater achievements in the most seemingly modest of human values — that of convenience. I would argue that his talk serves as a decent marker for a turning point with which we’re now all too familiar. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when or how it happened, but I think we’d all acknowledge that the internet has ceased being what it undoubtedly was, in spirit, in the 1990s and early 2000s: a new frontier. Now, it’s a big business, and we are its customers. Its job is to find new ways to please us and make our lives seemingly more convenient.

The very success of the scrappiest and cleverest startups — Facebook, Google, Twitter, Blogger, Instagram, Uber, Snapchat, Airbnb — has led to this outcome, through a process that, in Williams’s view, follows traditional economic principles much more closely than we predicted. In fact, Williams likens the internet to, of all things, agriculture, an older technology that also grew in sophistication as it sought better and more efficient ways to serve basic needs. Like modern agriculture, the internet may once have seemed a remarkable, visionary achievement, but now it’s an essential, increasingly invisible backdrop to our daily lives, something we couldn’t imagine living without, and something that improves by increments rather than leaps, fixing annoyances, removing friction, updating old habits. 

Think of Netflix, Dollar Shave Club, Stitch Fix, Blue Apron, and a thousand other examples. Think, most of all, of Amazon, the company that invented digital convenience as big business.

So, for one, an app that helps you avoid wait times at restaurants is merely one more example of digital culture’s attempt to maximize convenience. The second point I want to observe here is that the highly representative user experience created by Uber Eats is taking place on a mobile phone. Yes, we live in an era of interface proliferation, with laptops, phones, tablets, speakers, watches, and built-in touchscreens vying for our attention. But nothing matters to us like the device that, to many of us, might as well be another appendage — you’d just as soon leave your left foot at home as you would your iPhone or Android device. 

Given that ubiquity, phones are both the devices that now define our online lives and, increasingly, the interfaces through which digitally assisted physical transactions occur. The lines are blurred enough that phone-based transactions can encompass both offline and online at the same time.

The threat, for instance, that Amazon would destroy offline retail appears clearly now to have been misplaced, if for no other reason than the basic fact that commerce has to happen somewhere, and it’s unlikely we will be content never to leave our homes. If we’re out and about, we’re also always online. Restaurants with a unique atmosphere, shops where we can physically try on clothes before purchasing them — even stores that let us test drive our next digital device — are as important as ever, and they no longer need to struggle to prove their value as alternatives to digital commerce. They’re a part of it, and will only become more so over time.

Image courtesy of Amazon

Amazon’s experiments with physical retail are one manifestation of that fact, but I’d hazard to say that of all the impressive strengths of that company, creating offline experiences isn’t one of them. I was reminded of this yesterday when I stopped off on a drive through L.A. at a 7-11 that happened to have an Amazon Locker outside. Looking far different from the stock photo here, this particular Locker was a plain, dirty, beat-up-looking metal box, good I’m sure for picking up packages but, as a retail experience, about as lacking as you could imagine. 

It could turn out to be the case that just as Google has an Achilles’ heel when it comes to social networking, so too will Amazon struggle to integrate digital commerce with compelling real-life experiences. That’s where local businesses have a distinct advantage.

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Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product strategy at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
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