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An Open Letter to Webvan
Jul 26, 2001 :: Michael Sippey

Dear Webvan,

It's finally starting to sink in -- you're never coming back, are you.

I think what triggered my reluctant recognition is the half-eaten package of seedless grapes still in our fridge. You see, we usually order a pound or so of white seedless grapes, and never really get around to finishing them, since no one ever wants to eat the last little bunch of grapes (since a little bunch of grapes is so much more depressing looking than a bigger bunch of grapes laid out on a nice plate with a soft brie). Anyway, the grapes are still in there, with their nice Webvan label, and definitely need to be thrown out, but I guess I was waiting for the new package to arrive.

Which hasn't come, obviously.

We are...um, were the perfect Webvan household. Two working parents, and a young child. We ordered every two weeks, like clockwork. Milk, orange juice, Diet Coke, Fresca, beer. Eggs, bacon, bread, cereal, yogurt. Rice, fish, chicken, broccoli, asparagus. Apples, bananas, strawberries and grapes. Shaving cream, deodorant, bar soap, dish soap, laundry soap. Diapers, wipes, more diapers, more wipes. And Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies, which the Safeway at the end of our street doesn't carry.

When things started to go south -- when George "left," when it was clear that funding wouldn't be coming any time soon -- there was gallows humor around the house. "We're toast without Webvan. We'll starve," we'd tell our friends. But instead of just whining, we tried to do something about it; we did our best to help you out. We knew that your little house icons on the delivery scheduling screen were meant to help cut your costs, so we tried as best we could to schedule times when you were already in our neighborhood. We took it upon ourselves to be Webvan evangelists, especially to our friends with kids, using lines like "you actually schlep that stuff home from the grocery store?" And that time when you brought the wrong kind of Tide (powder instead of liquid) we didn't complain, we just took it, because we knew it would cost you more than the price of the item to restock it - which would blow the margin on the whole order.

That is if you were actually making any margin on our orders. Whenever we checked out we kept getting those $40 off coupons. (We felt guilty about them then, and we feel guilty about them now...but thanks anyway.)

We've been reading all the Monday morning quarterback analysis, about your "spendthrift culture, inflexible management and a rollout in multiple cities before the business model was proven." And while our only contact with the company was through your friendly delivery people (the poor guys wouldn't even accept tips, even when we knew their options were way under water), we have to wonder -- just what the heck were you thinking? Automated warehouses? Custom trucks? PDAs with belt-attached printers? Shutting down profitable Homegrocer franchises? Wasn't it plain that there weren't enough of "us" around?

You know, urban-type people. Tech savvy urban-type people. Tech savvy urban-type people with a thing for not getting out much. Tech savvy urban-type people with enough time to fill a virtual shopping cart with groceries, but not enough to walk down the street to the local Safeway.

The very local Safeway. Which is what we're left with, I guess. They may only be 300 yards from our front stoop, but they don't have nice strong men in nice looking uniforms driving around in nice-looking trucks. They don't store our shopping history (well, at least not in a place accessible to us), they don't sell Playstation games, they don't sell the cookies we like, and they don't give us $40 off ever time we order.

But they're still in business, after all, and I'm fairly certain they carry seedless grapes, so...

So long,
Michael

 

 

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