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Has Our Delivery Culture Gotten Out of Hand?

Ordering pizza? Okay. Sex toys? There may be something wrong with us.

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I’ve always maintained that a great thing about New York is that, theoretically, you can get anything you want whenever you want it. Need milk at 2 a.m.? Pad thai and BBQ on the same block? Weed brought to you by models? The city provides.

New York’s delivery culture is something the tech industry has been capitalizing on for some time now. Most recently and topically, it’s resulted in the British sex toy company MysteryVibe launching an “on-demand vibrator delivery service” in New York for Valentine’s Day. That’s right: Today and tomorrow, the company is delivering vibrators in under an hour, complete with chocolates and a “tech-savvy Kama Sutra,” whatever that means.

The service certainly raises more questions than it answers. Are the delivery people being trained in discretion, or will they be like your weed hookup who sort of lingers until you relent and offer him some of the product? Who has a vibrator emergency so bad that they need one brought by in less than an hour? Who can’t just use their hand for a day?

“These days in New York City you can pretty much get anything delivered same-day … except pleasure. Which is a real shame, as when you order pleasure products online you’re really excited to try them!” says Stephanie Alys, co-founder of MysteryVibe. Apparently, it’s a growing concern: “We know from customer feedback that while people do a lot of research before ordering, they often order when they need it the most.”

MysteryVibe is hoping to expand to other cities, as well as making this a more permanent option in New York. It’s a PR gimmick, for sure, another example of the tech industry’s incredible ability to solve problems nobody actually had. But by launching it in New York City, they’re also capitalizing on our culture of delivery. New Yorkers thrive on delivery. We define ourselves by it. But it’s turning into a classic horror tale: What if we had delivery, but too much?

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A friend who moved to Seattle from New York recently told me a horror story. She was home alone one night, and desired dinner. Not having many groceries, and not wanting to drive to the store after a long day at work, she tried to get delivery. But (shines flashlight under my face) nobody would come to her house. Instead, she could drive to a restaurant to pick up her order. The one place that would deliver was a pizzeria, which would charge her a $15 minimum and a $10 delivery fee.

A hallmark of my childhood was the folder of delivery menus by the phone. When my mom worked late, when my dad’s mini-fridge was too small for groceries, there was still dinner to be had. New Yorkers work hard, have small kitchens, and don’t own cars. Many of us also have a hard time carrying bags up and down stairs, or using stairs at all. That we can get full meals, groceries, and anything else you can get at the bodega delivered to our doors for little to no fee isn’t just a convenience. It’s a necessity.

Most New Yorkers tend to understand this, and act out of kindness accordingly. Certainly some of the kindness is out of self-preservation — there were longstanding myths of favorite takeout places that refused to deliver to demonstrated assholes — but also out of a sense of appreciation. What luck that we got to partake of this piece of New York, this thing that we couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m romanticizing a bit: New Yorkers have stiffed delivery guys and harassed service workers, too. But for a long time, you at least had to look them in the eye while you did it.

Apps like Seamless were originally the next logical step in delivery innovation. Instead of having to yell your credit card number over the phone, or make sure you had enough cash for delivery, you just fill out a form online and get the same service you’ve always gotten. New Yorkers were quick to adapt. After all, this is what we had always done.

But most New Yorkers also sensed the stakes had been raised, especially with the boom and bust of the first dot-com bubble. In 2011, Jon Stewart joked on The Daily Show about an early iteration of the delivery tech boom — UrbanFetch, a company that would bring you literally anything in about half an hour, with a T-shirt and free cookies. He told a hypothetical story of two stoned roommates ordering, separately, Scarface and two pints of cookie dough ice cream, and “Goodfellas, two pints of Cherry Garcia, and a dildo that glows in the dark.” UrbanFetch, as you may have guessed, was not a sustainable operation. “My point is this,” said Stewart. “I miss these fucking guys. But we all knew this thing was not going to last.”

But the bubble grew again, and now, among Amazon Prime, Seamless, Postmates, and now MysteryVibe, it’s hard to imagine anything you can’t get delivered. And that’s wreaking havoc on businesses. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Dunn outlined how delivery apps are killing restaurants, with one restaurateur describing them as “an income stream that his business had become dependent upon but that might ultimately be running them into the ground.” Amazon Prime deliveries are made possible by atrocious working conditions. It’s not sustainable, and if it is, it’s because we’re sacrificing too much and too many.

Alys argues that, instead of things like pints of ice cream, instant delivery is actually better suited for luxury products. “There are a lot of hidden fees, especially at the lower end of the market,” she says, “So the economics might not work for a pack of condoms or an energy bar, but they can for a luxury product like a Crescendo.” So sure, it might work. It doesn’t seem like mom-and-pop sex toy shops will be put out by this innovation, cajoled into providing a service they can’t maintain.

Unfortunately, most of New York relies on delivery of that small, nonluxury stuff, and it’s become a problem. It’s too easy to just blame greedy corporate overlords or lazy millennials who don’t like making phone calls. As with most significant cultural shifts, it’s everything’s fault. A desire for convenience based on existing cultural norms, plus an increasing acceptance of doing business through middleman-run apps, multiplied by how much harder it is for most restaurants and stores to build their own online order forms instead of just signing up for Seamless or Postmates, equals a current reality in which convenience is king, and can often be instantaneous. And once that dam has been broken, who wants to go back?

A New York without delivery would look completely alien to me. But I’m starting to see a future in which something has to give, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe the only restaurants that’ll deliver will be the ones that already have the capital to pay Seamless fines, perpetuating the suburbanization of the city. Maybe we’ll all be paying $10 delivery fees like a bunch of Seattleites. Maybe that was what we should have been doing this whole time. But, you know, tip your delivery guy. And maybe remember that waiting two days for a vibrator isn’t the end of the world.

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