The Report

Too busy to pick up the takeout? Postmates will deliver

Posting in Cities

A bike courier service that delivers right to the consumer's door is being tested in New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

It was 2006, and Bastian Lehmann was moving from Munich to London. In the arduous process of getting all his stuff from one city to the other, his snowboard was left behind. It would have cost a fortune to forward it with traditional shipping services like UPS or FedEx, but Lehmann checked Yelp and found a cheaper courier service that would handle the job.

Turns out he got the board transported an even cheaper way, when a friend brought it to him, but the seed for Postmates -- a same-day courier service that allows people to get whatever they need to wherever they need it -- was planted.

“It’s like ride sharing for items,” Lehmann says. “We thought, 'We can create a network similar to UPS that’s part of your city that merchants can leverage.' ”

While the idea was born more than seven years ago, it only really became viable in 2011 with the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, and Lehmann (along with his Postmates co-founders Sean Plaice and Sam Street) set off to make the lives of city residents easier, while providing a delivery service that would benefit local merchants.

The problem San Francisco-based Postmates aims to resolve isn’t so much delivering between cities (like Lehmann needed when his snowboard was left behind) as delivering within them. That’s where Postmates (and its crew of bicycle couriers) comes in. Initially, its services cover New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

For consumers, using Postmates to get something delivered is as easy as downloading the free app and signing up. You can browse nearby restaurants or search for something specific. Say you need a bunch of asparagus and a pint of salted caramel ice cream from Bi-Rite; you can use the app to search for Bi-Rite, and purchase the items you need. Then, a Postmates courier is authorized to make those purchases on your behalf, and deliver them to your door.

A store owner isn’t required to sign up for consumers to participate. In fact, most don’t even have a formal relationship with Postmates yet. One exception is Whole Foods, which updates Postmates with new inventory on a weekly basis. The store hopes this will encourage larger orders. There is also a priority checkout feature for Postmates users.

For merchants, the Postmates platform makes sense because the more people who use the Postmates app, the more exposure their store and products receive. 

In coming weeks, more merchants will be able to sign up. This will give them the ability to dispatch delivery requests to the Postmates fleet directly, manage the inventory shown on the app, control prices, and open or close their store within the app. (Not everything is open 24x7.) Pricing for this service wasn't finalized as of early June, but it will likely entail a fee for each delivery, along with a percentage of the order volume.

For customers, the benefit is pretty obvious, although there has been some gripe about delivery fees. Get anything, anywhere, and authorize Postmates to buy things for you in less than one hour for a small fee that begins around $5. Right now, most items delivered through the service are food or grocery-related, but the inventory of what you can request is growing.

“Part of our vision is to understand the inventory of a city the same way Amazon understands the inventory of one of their warehouses,” Lehmann says. “We had to start somewhere and that somewhere for us is prepared food.”

Of course, there are other food delivery services, like the recently merged GrubHub and Seamless as well as Delivery.com. But none offer the “we’ll get it for you from wherever you want” approach that Postmates does. With the others, the vendor is responsible for the delivery. With Postmates, you can order from places that don’t deliver or aren’t signed up for an Internet delivery service.

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure