Stressed? goPuff will bring you sex toys, canned soup

Tuesday, April 14, 2020 - 2:41pm

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Illustration by Christine Jegarl

Over the past two weeks, my campus house has had 200 multivitamins, 48 beers, 10 bottles of wine, seven pints of ice cream, four bags of chips, two Monster energy drinks and one gallon of spring water delivered to our doorstep.

It’s a grocery haul far too depraved for Instacart or Shipt. We’ve been abusing goPuff, the millennial-catering-convenience-delivery-gig-business, with a regularity it was never designed for. Founded in 2013 by Drexel juniors Yakir Gola and Rafael Ilishayev, goPuff started as an on-demand hookah delivery service, hence its endearing moniker. Around a year later, however, these two poster-child disruptors noted that the demands for chips and paper towels were outpacing those for blunt wraps and shisha, and they responded to observed user needs by keenly rebranding as your friendly neighborhood mobile convenience store — a founding myth that will leave an enterprising tech bro absolutely weak in the knees.

In six years, goPuff has expanded to 150 United States locations with an emphasis on urban hubs and college towns, including our own lady Ann Arbor last May. I first heard of it last week, though, when I reached the end of my pre-quarantine booze haul and began openly complaining about the dearth of wine. A housemate mentioned goPuff in conciliatory passing and I looked it up because it sounded funny (marketing warlocks). Twenty minutes later I was the proud owner of two cheap pinots and a dum-dum taped to a “happy first order” card. Magic. 

Within days my whole house was obsessed. We were at the rice-every-night end of our pantry stock and trying to avoid grocery stores as long as possible. The idea that Ben & Jerry’s or a full 30-rack of Natty Light could be at the door in half an hour, bing bang boom, was manna from heaven. The flat $1.95 delivery fee (often negated with promo codes like “DOUBLEUP,” wink wink) coupled with the fact that you don’t have to compete for a slot colored it in a particularly miraculous pandemic-era light.

What I’m saying is that every 36 hours, as if by subconscious instinct, my house found itself huddling around someone’s laptop to compose a melodious, collaborative goPuff order. We began affectionately referring to the service as “Puff Daddy” and clogged one another’s Venmo feeds with half-wit variations of the endearment. We killed time by surfing the site’s unusually comprehensive inventory, searching for some rhyme or reason to its generous definition of “convenience good.” Where else can you buy chewing tobacco, Hot Pockets, shampoo, single cans of Four Loko and $70 Fleshlights in one extremely foul swoop? Puff Daddy will satisfy you, and you, and you and you, too! (You get a Fleshlight! You get a Fleshlight!)

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Figures 1.1 and 1.2: A discernible pattern in language despite lackluster comedic or linguistic effort

Figures 1.1 and 1.2: A discernible pattern in language despite lackluster comedic or linguistic effort Buy this photo
Courtesy of Verity Sturm

When I explained this phenomenon to a neighbor during a socially-distanced porch hang they bark-laughed at me and replied, “Good to see neoliberalism is still doing well!” which was very effective in slowing my roll about it all because they’re totally right (though I know for a fact my neighbors made Easter mimosas on Sunday morning with champagne they ordered from none other than Puff Daddy — so suck it, 412.)

The skinny is that like every other gig company out there, goPuff is a multimillion-dollar brainchild that squeezes its own 1099-contracted workers for most all operational resources — vehicles, gas, maintenance, phones, insurance — while paying them the minimum and leaving them to independently scramble for hours. On top of that, goPuff is backed by a dripping panel of venture capitalists including the notorious tech conglomerate SoftBank, aka the literal daddy of the military-minded robotics company Boston Dynamics, aka the people loaning robotic dogs to the Massachusetts State Police. Even my precious Puff Daddy can be traced back to some of the evilest capitalists out there. It begs the question, is anything truly free? These are thoughts that would make you run for the hills if there weren’t a pandemic. 

While rideshare services — the veritable emblem of the neoliberal business model — have tanked in the wake of COVID-19, food delivery gig-services are experiencing an unprecedented rise in demand, goPuff among them. In a recent email to The Daily, Liz Romaine, goPuff director of communications, reported “an increase in customer demand,” especially for “household essentials, OTC medications, meat, bread, pasta, canned items and water as well as baby products.”

Forget the impressive array of dip varietals and sex toys. With the arguable exception of certain college houses that may or may not prioritize alcohol over nutrition, most users are out there doing what they can to get what they need in the safest way possible, which includes leveraging an indulgent gig-grocery service for the bare staples. 

Romaine did emphasize that goPuff’s “number one priority is keeping our driver-partners, employees, customers and community safe and healthy,” and that goPuff has implemented new policies and procedures to do so amid COVID-19. 

For the record, all the driver-partners I’ve interacted with over the last two weeks have worn copious personal protective equipment and performed no-contact delivery, including scanning IDs from a distance when required. Residents in Philadelphia, however, have had issues with medical gloves and personal protective equipment — all in the brand’s signature bright blue — discarded in public areas outside one of goPuff’s warehouses.

Romaine concluded her email with an announcement of a 90-day hiring push to meet increased demand, complete with links to applications.

Like most everything coronavirus-related — which, nowadays, is almost everything — it’s hard to tell whether these changes constitute a temporary, passing phase or something seriously bound to internalize into more permanent industry patterns. Maybe goPuff/SoftBank/gig-groceries will ride this wave into oppressive Amazon-level omnipotence and I’ll kick myself for being forever complicit via that first bottle of Apothic Red. Or maybe I’ll be back at the Main Street Party Store next month (very dubious, but worthy of hypothetical address) and goPuff will be something forever and always associated with This Thing Alone, sayonara, book closed. I don’t know.

The one thing I’m sure of, though, is how to get a Fleshlight in a pandemic.