the money

Will the New Concierge Economy Mean the End of the Errand?

For two weeks, I passed off anything that could be classified as an errand, housework, or chore to an app. And it worked. Photo: Alex Telfer/Galeey Stock

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I realized I needed a handful of ingredients for dinner — some cilantro, another onion. There’s a grocery store around the corner from my apartment. I could have gotten there and back in less than ten minutes. Instead, I stretched, made myself another cup of tea, and opened an app on my iPhone to let a personal shopper know what I needed. About 90 minutes later, the groceries appeared in my apartment. I never had to leave the sofa.

Just over a year ago, this would have been difficult. It was only last February that the grocery-delivery service Instacart launched in D.C., where I live. And it has only been in the past few years that dozens of other new app-based delivery and service-work suppliers have popped up. There’s Drizly and Klink, which deliver booze. There’s Washio, the proverbial “Uber for” laundry and dry cleaning. There’s Homejoy for house cleaners; Swifto for dog walkers; Soothe for masseuses; TaskRabbit for pretty much everything else. There are now even metaservices like WunWun and Magic that promise to figure out how to get you whatever you need, whenever you need it.

Acting as a middleman between cheap service workers and flush consumers is such a compelling business model that tech behemoths including Uber, Google, and Amazon are getting in on it. Amazon even offers, for those of us who are savvy in e-commerce but lacking a lawn mower, to find someone to bring in a herd of goats to eat your yard.

And yet the errand-outsourcing industry has also been polarizing. Optimists argue that these apps allow you to fob off life’s annoyances on someone willing to treat them like a job. That means you can take that hour or three you spend on housework every day and collapse it down to nothing, freeing you to spend more time working or enjoying yourself, a change worth thousands and thousands of dollars, if you could put a price tag on it. Pessimists argue that these businesses merely make it easier for the well-off, lazy, or both to pay for someone else to do their dirty laundry for them — making the one percent’s lifestyle affordable for, say, the 5 percent. Since when is that innovation? Or a real engine for economic growth?

To see for myself how well the new what-you-want-when-you-want-it industry really works, and what kind of future it might help usher in, I decided to undertake a little experiment. For two weeks, I did as little as humanly possible aside from read and write. I passed off anything that could be classified as an errand, housework, or chore. And it worked.

I mostly spend my days in my apartment, not in an office. My husband and I do not employ a cleaning service or a dog walker. I cannot function unless my living space is tidy. This being so, I do a not-inconsiderable amount of scrubbing, vacuuming, poop-collecting, trash-hauling, and repairing. But not anymore, at least for a brief spell. We needed food? I ordered it. Laundry? Washio. More toilet paper? Any of a half-dozen delivery apps. Get that weird detritus out of the parking spot? Sure. I got a squat rack and 300 pounds of weights set up on the cheap. All the while, I sat on my sofa like a duchess, digitally barking orders at my workers while my personal productivity soared.

It wasn’t just normal chores I managed to get done, either. One afternoon, my husband called me from the airport, frantic at having forgotten his MacBook charger on the way to a business meeting in Sacramento. Could he stop at an Apple store in Sacramento? No, he’d get in too late. I turned to Magic, one of those metaservices.

Magic,” I texted. “Can someone in Sacramento deliver a computer charger for a 2014 MacBook Air to a hotel?” It took four text messages, perhaps three minutes of active thought, and about $100 in fees for the charger to show up, like magic. Very expensive magic.

But magic is never really magic, is it? No, it is just work. That’s the thing about these apps: They allow you to outsource the work you would normally do for yourself by reducing the friction associated with hiring workers for one-off tasks and pushing down the costs of hiring someone on a consistent basis. A year or two ago, after all, I could have put up a Craigslist ad looking for someone to get me groceries, but I would have had to wade through the responses and manage payment and delivery. I could have ordered them from a service like Peapod or FreshDirect, but it would have taken a day or two. These apps allow us to assign a value to chores that the non-filthy-rich rarely, if ever, outsource.

That brings us back to the pessimists’ argument about these businesses. Yes, they’re creating a tremendous number of jobs, turning much of the conventional wisdom about robots destroying the labor market on its head. Uber alone has signed up 160,000 drivers in just the past few years. But many of them are not really increasing the size of the economy as much as they are shuffling work around from one person to another whose time is worth less on the free market. “You’re not creating economic activity, in my mind, when you have someone do your laundry instead of doing it yourself,” said Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT (who actually counts himself an errand-app supporter). “It’s a question of paid work versus unpaid work.” It was Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson who noted that a man who marries his maid reduces GDP.

And they’re ginning up that cheap GDP courtesy of some crummy trends in the labor market. Part of the reason these apps are flourishing is that they pay relatively low wages to workers, and, in the long wake of the recession, there are many workers still available to do this kind of work. You could even argue that these apps might be a divisive force in the economy — you can imagine them helping to foster a world composed of comfortable Annies paying to get their trash taken out and low-wage, low-mobility worker bees doing their housework for them, sapping mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar businesses all the while.

But that is not to say that the optimists’ argument is total bunk. Even with all the gadgets and technical innovations in the modern home, despite being citizens of the richest nation in the history of the planet, the average American man spends 81 minutes a day cleaning up his castle. For the average woman, it is 133 minutes. During my two-week experiment? It withered to nothing. My days felt longer. My work felt easier. My life felt simpler and more enjoyable.

Perhaps that sounds like nothing more than instant gratification. Perhaps, as another common criticism goes, all these apps are just a way for entitled 24-year-old Silicon Valley men to iron out the handful of hassles they think that they have. But those kinds of moralistic arguments have always struck me as condescending and hollow. For a parent with a sick toddler to be able to get diapers and baby food delivered in an hour for a few bucks? That is a triumph of capitalism, not something to sneer at. 

And even if tech’s men-children are the ones dreaming up these apps, my suspicion is that women have a lot to gain from them — or at least the privileged women with enough disposable income to use them. Innovations like the dishwasher and the washing machine helped women enter the workforce. They let women spend more time on work once they were there. They helped to raise our wages. They helped to improve workers’ productivity. As such, they helped the entire country flourish. These apps are not reducing the overall need for housework, like the dishwasher did. But for a host of reasons, voluntary and not, the burden of chores still falls overwhelmingly on women of all income levels. And so convenience and those saved 133 minutes are surely worth something to us — and it only cost about $10 for grocery delivery, I learned.

*This article appears in the April 6, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Will Concierge Apps Mean the End of the Errand?