Now that the Internet has people accustomed to getting music, videos, and information on demand, companies are racing to meet those expectations in the physical world.
Walmart.com dispatches employees from local stores to drop off goods at doorsteps. Amazon hawks groceries in some cities, with promised same-day delivery. And now eBay has hired an army of couriers to hand-deliver products.
"Our vision is to make eBay the most convenient way to shop locally," says Deborah Sharkey, vice president of local at eBay, in an e-mail. "eBay Now gives consumers a new way to shop whenever the moment of inspiration strikes, delivered to their exact location, within about an hour."
The eBay Now website functions as an online catalog for Target, Bloomingdale's, and other large chains. Customers can browse, fill up a digital shopping cart, and pay by credit card. Once someone places an order, eBay Now dispatches a "valet" to pick up the items from stores and deliver everything the same day.
To pull off this speedy feat, eBay Now sticks to cities. It has hired couriers in New York; Chicago; San Jose, Calif.; and San Francisco, with Dallas joining the list soon. The program plans to expand service to 25 new cities next year. This holiday, personal deliveries come at no additional cost. For the rest of the year, there's a $5 fee for each store a customer orders from.
Amazon and Wal-Mart have developed their own ways to make package deliveries feel more like pizza deliveries. Just this month, Amazon revealed plans to launch a fleet of aerial delivery drones. These small, pilotless helicopters could drop off packages within 30 minutes. But deployment will take several years, according to the company, as it finalizes the technology and waits for government approval.
Online companies have a troubled history with same-day delivery. In the late 1990s, Kozmo, Webvan, and UrbanFetch promised to pick up everything from video games to ice cream, often with no fee. The shuttered companies now exemplify the decadence of the dot-com days – thinking that free services at huge volume would somehow work out in the end.
Today's e-couriers hope to reverse the trend by building on already successful businesses. "We use technology to help retailers leverage existing assets (stores) to give customers what they want, when they want it," writes Ms. Sharkey.
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The original version of this article ran in the December 16 issue of the Christian Science Monitor magazine.