Webvan, R.I.P.

Webvan, R.I.P.

IF I HAD A BILLION dollars, I could have bought a lot of groceries. Bags and bags and bags of them. In fact, I was one of the 750,000 people (not nearly enough, apparently) who used, and are now mourning the loss of, Webvan, the online grocer that closed up shop last week and announced plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after two years, seven markets, and $830 million dollars.

If I had a billion dollars, I could have hired people to go to the store and buy my groceries for me and put them away. That would have been nice. Instead, I got the usually friendly, always guarded deliverymen who saw the sky falling months and months ago. “This is a great idea,” I’d offer, when they neatly lined up my bags of groceries on my kitchen counter, and they’d give me a look that said, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Former CEO George Shaheen enjoyed it; he has a contract that says he’s supposed to get $30,000 a month for life. The other 2,000 employees got a $900 severance gift from an anonymous donor.

If I had a billion dollars, I’d give out lots of presents for no reason. With Webvan and Homegrocer (folded into Webvan a few months ago), I always got exactly what I ordered, but I often got bonuses. One time, I found three sets of bunny cookie cutters, weeks after Easter. With Homegrocer, I’d always get skinny sticky notepads that stuck to the refrigerator for making grocery lists. This is an excellent idea: You open the fridge, realize, “I need milk,” and there’s a pad and pen right there.

If I had a billion dollars, I’d give lots of tips. I was always uncomfortable that the drivers couldn’t take tips. What kind of company gets founded on the idea that its drivers can’t take tips?

If I had a billion dollars, I probably couldn’t make online grocery service work, either. Consumers, as many have so painfully and wastefully learned, want to buy from established companies they already know. Safeway.com or fredmeyer.com could probably make it. People know what they’re getting; they can picture the place in their head. And despite all the hoopla, buying groceries online isn’t for everyone. It’s the rare person who actually goes to the grocery store and buys only what’s on the list—if they’ve even made a list. And even with that little pad, I was never so organized that I didn’t always forget some crucial element. I also missed the surprise specials that you can actually see in the store. Getting exactly what you came for takes away half the fun.

If I had a billion dollars, I would spend less time on the Internet. The best thing to buy on the Internet is plane tickets (and porn, or so I’ve heard). You can get something you can’t get in a store, and you don’t really need personalized service to tell you that a 45-minute layover is better than a three-hour one. Planes are basically the same. You only choose what to buy based on price, time, and maybe your frequent flier miles. But with most everything else, people generally choose what to buy based on a combination of information, advice, appearance, and whim. And those last three elements were missing from Webvan.

If I had a billion dollars, of course, I’d be rich.


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