A Street Fight Among Grocers to Deliver Your Milk, Eggs, Bananas

A Street Fight Among Grocers to Deliver Your Milk, Eggs, Bananas

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The City

Mr. Browne knows which doormen will let him use the bathroom, which customers tip well and which buildings will force him to use the service entrance, even if he’s only carrying a couple of bags.

Delivering perishable groceries is still largely an urban business, where logistics can be a nightmare. There are fewer places to park, more steps to climb and more garage doors to accidentally block. Mail carriers have offered some lessons for Peapod’s competition; FreshDirect, for example, copies the UPS model of parking in one spot all day, and using multiple people to make multiple deliveries at a time.

On his way into one building, Mr. Browne passes a cart full of FreshDirect groceries on the sidewalk.

Unlike FreshDirect deliverymen, Mr. Browne works alone in his truck, and he has to move it for each delivery. Parking tickets are a cost of doing business, and Peapod even has a line item on the budget for fines and tolls. But moving around in a dense urban area has other challenges.

“It’s a lot of traffic, real tight spaces, a lot of people, people will just cross right in front of the truck sometimes,” Mr. Browne says. “Working in the city is very difficult, that’s why they say it’s not for everyone.”

As he drives, Mr. Browne scans the road for buses, cabs, pedestrians and even horses. Peapod drivers get a couple of hours of defensive driving training, and Mr. Browne keeps an eye on a camera that shows what’s happening directly behind him. That helps him spot skateboarders who sometimes try to catch a free ride by grabbing his bumper.

“That’s dangerous, because if I turn,” he said, “that guy is basically dead.”

Once he makes it through Times Square, things get a little easier. Today he’s mostly going to residential buildings with elevators, where people tend to tip better, inexplicably, than people who live in walk-ups.

“You have some customers where they have an elevator, they have a doorman, and they could have three bags, give you $20,” says Mr. Browne, who has been working overtime to save up for a birthday party for one of his three children. “I say, ‘Thank you, this goes to my daughter’s sweet 16.’”

Mr. Browne likes interacting with customers. He has families, college students, older people who he feels he’s helping, because they can’t easily shop for themselves. There’s the woman who lives directly above a grocery store, but still orders online. There’s the man who orders Froot Loops or cold cuts every couple of days, the woman who tips $20 every time.

Today, he’ll deliver to a couple of college students who must meet the truck outside. For security reasons, their dorm won’t let delivery drivers upstairs.

On the Upper East Side, some of Mr. Browne’s customers meet him at his truck.

Credit
Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Younger people are especially important to grocery delivery companies. Millennials and Generation Y make up about a quarter of Peapod’s customers, but in a few years those young people will likely begin spending more money on food; maybe they’ll have families, or get a pet, or start making a little more money.

They have grown up in an environment where everything is available online, and digital grocers want to get them hooked early. Peapod, for example, has added more organic, international and bulk items to its offerings, because those products tend to be popular among its younger customers.

Generation X makes up about half of Peapod’s customers, and the remaining 25 percent are older. In total, Peapod’s customers are fairly evenly divided between the city and the suburbs, where Mr. Browne prefers to work. There are no horses or walk-ups, and he doesn’t need to walk past the garbage at a service entrance.

Though the distances are longer, non-metro areas tend to be cheaper places for Peapod to work, according to Ken Fanaro, the company’s senior director of transportation planning and development. Fuel efficiency is better, and there are fewer parking tickets and tolls. But because customers are farther away and more widely spaced, drivers can do fewer orders per shift. (Tips, however, tend to be better outside the most densely populated areas, Mr. Browne says. One time he went to Staten Island — part of New York City, but largely suburban in layout — and made $200 over two days.)

“Every day, you’re coming home with money,” he says. “I’ve never had a job like that before.”

About half of Mr. Browne’s customers today chose to tip him online when they placed their orders. Some will tip him in cash. Some, like the college students, won’t tip at all. Today, the man in the fourth-floor walk-up who orders every couple of days tips Mr. Browne for the first time, giving him $3.

“What’s up, boss?” Mr. Browne says to the man at the top of the stairs, slightly out of breath.

Mr. Browne has lost 15 pounds since he started this job about a year and a half ago. Today he is carrying a gallon of milk, laundry detergent and a couple of bags with his left arm, and holds a carton of eggs in his right hand. He tries to do everything in one trip, if he can.

He opens the carton to show the eggs aren’t broken — eggs must always be presented to the customer — and heads back downstairs. In and out.

“What’s up, buddy?” he says to a woman’s cat, for whom he’s carrying two big containers of litter. “This is for you.” He chats with the cat’s owner for a minute as he carries the bags into her apartment, but the small talk can’t take extra time.

Being late isn’t as often a problem for Mr. Browne as is being early. Because the city is so unpredictable, the company frequently allots him more time than he needs. He is one of the fastest drivers who works out of Peapod’s Jersey City warehouse, but he thinks he could do more deliveries.

When he shows up early, he can’t contact the customers directly. Instead, he has to call someone back at the office, who then calls the customer, to see if he can drop off the order ahead of time. If not, he has to wait.

When the opposite happens — when people aren’t home — Mr. Browne can wait only 15 minutes. The other day he had to wait for a woman in a fourth-floor walk-up, carrying three bags in each hand.

“Seven minutes, I could have done another delivery,” he says.

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