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Super-Speedy Delivery Robots May Bring Odd Shift in Our Buying Habits

Having our desires delivered in minutes is a convenient game changer for those who have trouble making shopping trips, but the instant gratification economy faces serious challenges — and possible unintended psychological effects.
JUST EAT pilots a Starship robot to deliver food from its restaurants.
JUST EAT pilots a Starship robot to deliver food from its restaurants.John Phillips / JUST EAT

If you live in the nation’s capital, your next takeout order could be delivered by a small, six-wheeled robot vaguely reminiscent of WALL-E.

Part of a pilot food delivery program launched by Starship Technologies and Postmates, the self-driving robots can pick up orders and travel to a customer’s house up to two miles away, using cameras and GPS tracking to dodge pedestrians and other obstacles. Customers can follow the bot’s journey through an app, or kick back and wait for a text notification that their meal has arrived outside, and then open the door and click a link to unlock the bot to retrieve their food.

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With its robo-deliveries, Starship aims to reduce delivery times and fuel costs. It’s just one of a broad array of tools companies are using to speed up service and get customers what they want as quickly as possible. As Starship robots take to the streets:

  • 7-Eleven just completed a one month aerial drone delivery test in Nevada.
  • Amazon Prime Air made its first drone delivery in the U.K.
  • TacoBell last year unveiled the Tacobot — an artificial intelligence chatbot that integrates with the Slack messaging platform to allow customers to text orders from their desks.
  • Dominos rolled out a “zero click” app that automatically orders your favorite hot pie seconds after the app is opened.

These time-saving systems, and the race to create even faster ones, are part of an emerging instant gratification economy designed to accommodate what consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow calls the "I want what I want when I want it" customer, or IWWIWWIWI. Having our desires delivered in minutes is a convenient game changer for those who have trouble making shopping trips, but the instant gratification economy faces serious challenges — and possible unintended psychological effects.

The Need for Speed

For Starship executive Henry Harris-Burland, the newer, speedier economy is about more than just getting goods faster. It’s also about rethinking traditional business models. Starship’s pilot programs will initially focus on food — the company is also testing automated delivery in partnership with DoorDash in Redwood, California — but the plan is to eventually provide retail, grocery, and parcel delivery, sans human drivers.

“The last couple of miles from a hub or a store to a customer’s house is incredibly inefficient,” Harris-Burland says. “Think about vans stopping and starting 150 times outside of 150 houses in one neighborhood. It’s an incredibly large waste of time. We’re looking to totally revolutionize those traditional delivery methods.”

Cruising at a max speed of four miles-per-hour, Starship bots generally deliver within 15 to 30 minutes, Harris-Burland says.

Should Starship break into the retail market, it will be competing in a space that already relies heavily on technology to reduce shipping times. To deliver goods in one day, or one hour in select locations, Amazon uses proprietary algorithms to determine exactly where items should be stored within warehouses, the shortest path human “pickers” can take to retrieve the items, and the exact amount of time it should take to fulfill each order.

The company is constantly pushing the boundaries of speedy delivery. It has filed patents for an "airborne fulfillment center” — a flying warehouse where aerial drones can refill between deliveries — and an “anticipatory package shipping” system designed to predict what you need, package it, and send it in your general direction (but not to your house) before you place an order.

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This year, UPS will implement ORION (On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation), a 1,000-page algorithm that determines the shortest driver routes by evaluating up to 200,000 alternatives for each trip. ORION shortens routes by an average of seven to eight miles, the company says. When fully deployed, it will save $300 to $400 million per year in fuel and human resource costs.

Smaller businesses lack the time and resources to build their own mega-algorithms, which is where companies like Routific come in. Aimed at helping the little guys keep up, Routific offers optimization software that takes a list of drivers and destinations and finds the best routes.

The system doesn’t find the perfect route — it could take years for a computer to churn through every possibility. But it does find a near-optimal solution in minutes, helping clients cut drive times and fuel consumption by about 40 percent. It also provides substantially shortened delivery times, says Routific CEO Marc Kuo.

Pedestrians pass a Starship delivery robot.
Pedestrians pass a Starship delivery robot.Starship

As delivery times quicken, a cottage industry of startups is attacking other time-wasting aspects of retail. Shane Mac, CEO of Assist, is aiming to end telephone hold times with his automated messaging system. Assist provides customer service for about 20 brands using messaging platforms like Facebook and Slack, as well as automated voice platforms like Siri and Google Home. Instead of phoning a call center only to be put on hold, users can book a hotel, buy movie tickets, make a charitable donation, etc., all through text and voice commands. Assist also keeps identification and payment information on file to speed things up.

“We went from people waiting on hold 25 minutes to people being able to change a reservation they made to our hotel in under 30 seconds,” Mac says. “We're giving everyone in the world a lot of time back.”

Speed and the Psyche

Delivery in one day, or even one hour, is still far from providing instant gratification. But as we move closer to that point, it’s worth considering how it impacts consumers.

Research shows that the speed at which we can satisfy our desires affects both what we want and how much we’re willing to pay for it. That suggests ultrafast delivery could affect more than just when we get our purchases — it could affect our minds and our behavior.

One possible reason is because “people value a reward in the present twice as much as they would value the same reward in the future,” says David Laibson, chair of Harvard University’s economics department and director of its Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative.

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When faced with immediate rewards, we often decide based on what we want now regardless of what consequences it may bring later. When offered choices with rewards available in several days or months, we’re more likely make decisions based on long-term needs and goals.

Economists say this phenomenon of “present bias" influences all sorts of buyer behaviors, and studies show that when there’s significant time between when we make a choice and when we can access its rewards, we often act more rationally.

“Technology that moves the consequences of our choices more and more into the present is going to empower this preference for instant gratification and undermine our ability to do what we consider to be in our long-run interests,” Laibson says.

Jonathan Cohen, co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, has concerns as well. Back in 2003, an interdisciplinary team of researchers including Cohen and Laibson put study subjects into an fMRI brain scanner and watched in real time as subjects decided whether they preferred to receive a small gift certificate immediately or wait two to six weeks for a larger one.

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The researchers found that when the choice revolved around an immediate or near-term reward, the subject’s emotional processing areas were activated. Those who chose the delayed reward showed more reliance on brain regions associated with logic. Those who opted for the immediate reward showed slightly more activity in regions associated with emotion.

Cohen says this study can’t be universalized to paint all decisions, but future brain imaging research may provide a better understanding of the logical and emotional processes that govern decision-making — and how they’re affected by instant gratification.

The Future of Fast

Kit Yarrow doesn’t believe that instant gratification business models will pervade our entire lives as consumers. While many companies are testing lightning-speed delivery, those services are costly, logistically complex, and thus unrealistic for most smaller retailers. Many of these services are currently free because they’re in test mode, she adds, but it’s unclear whether consumers will pay once they come at a price.

Image: Amazon drone
A drone carries a package at Amazon's research and development labs.Amazon via AP

“Right now, I think [some] retailers, especially Amazon, are saying, ‘Well, let's try this out. Once consumers get used to getting things in three hours, they'll eventually be willing to pay for it,’” Yarrow says. “A lot of what's been going on is trying to train consumers to have expectations of immediacy.”

Some have already dropped out of the same day delivery game — eBay, for instance, shuttered its service in 2015. But plenty of companies are jumping in. Last year, Staples launched its “Staples Rush” program, which guarantees that orders placed by 3 p.m. will make it to your door by 7 p.m., while Walmart partnered with Uber and Lyft to start same-day grocery delivery.

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Despite all this innovation, immediacy might not be what consumers really want in every retail transaction. A recent survey of more than 4,000 holiday shoppers found that 92 percent of consumers consider delivery within two days to be “fast,” and 87 percent value free shipping over fast shipping. Consumers indicated that they were willing to pay around $5 for same-day delivery. One in four said that they wouldn’t expect to pay anything at all for this service.

Regardless of how fast or widespread these services become, it's worth pausing for just a moment to make sure these are truly the choices we want.

“As we make things more and more immediately available, it poses more and more of a risk that people will take advantage of that opportunity without considering whether immediate gratification is the best course,” Cohen says, adding that immediate reward can be detrimental to consumers. “The more it becomes available, the more we have to think about whether or not this is a good idea.”

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