Two years ago last summer my life got a little bit better when a friend of mine from Sydney proudly demonstrated his brand new Uber app here on busy Fifth Avenue. John W is a good looking, highly successful, young entrepreneur with a head full of ideas to help make his business more forward thinking and responsive, so the Uber brand fits him perfectly. There’s no way can I imagine John enduring many Sydney cab rides every day (they’re probably the worst in the developed world). Nor would it look quite right for John to have a personal driver on hand (we used to call them chauffers). For a young, go-getter guy it would look a tad self obsessed and certainly rather old fashioned. John isn’t a difficult person with any sense of entitlement, but he certainly doesn’t want to be fumbling around for change or trying to sign a credit card slip on the back of a headrest. Nor can I imagine his wallet stuffed with ilegible little receipts. No, all John needs is a decent car and a friendly driver.
John was evangelical about Uber because it solved a real problem for him. A clean, handsome car could always be on hand, wherever he was in the world, without having to book or plan ahead and, of course, it gave him membership to a kind of select club without looking ostentatious or elistist.
It works perfectly for me here in New York too. Yellow cabs are notoriously rude and unhelpful probably most of the time and they’re certainly not over keen to help with your heavy bags when you arrive jet-lagged and tetchy into JFK. Then, at the end of the ride, there’s that awkward moment of calculating the tip. In fairness, yellow cabs now make it much easier for you with on screen recommended tips of 20% 25% or 30%. Yes 30%!! Now that starts to look like extortion, and that’s my point. It’s not really the total cost that worries us, it’s the expectation that after a bumpy ride in a filthy cab with a miserable driver, he’s expecting you to add a third of the price on top just as a way of saying thank you! If you’re feeling brave try leaving a 10% tip. He will, very likely, chase you up the street. I’m serious.
So as with most things, our decisions are not based on cost but on the emotional cost. We will probably pay extra to avoid the awkwardness of tipping and we will certainly pay extra for a happy, helpful driver. That’s the key: as each Uber journey is rated by every passenger (the app asks for a rating prior to the receipt) there’s a real incentive for the drivers to at least attempt to look like they want you in their cab in the first place. Too many yellow cabs, and London black cabs for that matter, make you feel as if you’re doing them a favour. At every given opportunity they will let rip about the rules, regulations and taxes that make it impossible to earn a decent living etc etc. Ironically, the arrival of Uber has become a fresh and meaty new source of whinge material.
I recently learned that the Uber driver rates us too! Yes, that means if you’re the kind of Friday night, arrogant throw up artist, then you’ll find it pretty tricky getting hold of an Uber, especially on a Friday night. What a beautifully democratic system.
At this stage I must just put in a good word for the London cabbie. After a long haul flight there’s nothing that gives you the lovely warm rush of a welcome home better than a chirpy London cabbie with a sweary synopsis of the latest news, cockney-style. Sadly though, their recent anti-Uber protests in London may have badly backfired. Firstly, it was a terrific piece of marketing for all those who had never heard of Uber, and secondly it reminded us just how stroppy London cabbies can be sometimes. Ultimately of course, it doesn’t matter how many authorities or cities ban Uber, app technology, whether Uber or not, can only win in the end.
The Uber app makes getting a decent car in a busy city centre much more convenient, with the total charge going straight to your credit card, while a clearly laid out digital receipt and map of your route arrives in your email. But that’s not why it’s successful. The Uber rating system quickly detects low rated drivers so it can remove them from the Uber network. (By contrast, imagine complaining to TFL in London or the TLC here in New York about a cab driver’s attitude. We don’t bother because we know nothing will happen) The Uber system means that you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a polite, if not always cheery, driver that actually wants you in his car!
Now this really is radical stuff! Imagine a world where every store visit is rated in terms of customer experience and service. Imagine how that might change the face of the high street. No more sulky checkout staff shouting ‘next’ and avoiding eye contact as if they were the lover you’d just had an almighty row with. No more disinterested shop assistants chatting to their colleagues to avoid doing any work. No more Post Office staff treating you with utter contempt for having the audacity to want to send a parcel of that particular size. Surely, this is no more than a pipedream? I don’t believe it is.
As payment systems become more advanced at the same time as retail apps become more integrated with their real world stores, I believe this is one of the great, unspoken benefits of the retail revolution we’re bang smack in the middle of.
Uber’s success is a glimpse of the future, a glimpse as to how new technology will change the way we consume. In four short years the company is already valued at $18 billion, operating in 128 cities across 45 countries. It’s very clear something was wrong with the old system, right across the planet, for Uber to have been embraced with such enthusiasm in so short a time. Thirty-something founder, Travis Kalanick, spotted the weaknesses in the old system and answered them directly. Quite simply, the Uber service is better because it puts the power in the hands of the customer and cares about what we think. And the post crash, Me-Centric consumer loves it!
The breath of fresh air they’ve brought to an old industry feels even fresher when you take a look at their innovative promotional strategy. Over the last year or so, we’ve had the offer of Uber ice cream trucks during the long hot New York summer, Uber chopper rides to the Hamptons, free weekend trips to Brooklyn, Uber sky-writing for Valentine’s Day and, perhaps strangest of all, ‘kittens on demand’ as part of National Cat Day.
The Uber business model really is a template for forward thinking brands. Each of us already uses a handful of the billion apps available to help our lives run smoother: online deliveries, personal trainers, car services and favourite brands. No need for cash or cards, these brands are our trusted ‘clubs’. They are the dominant apps or ‘doms’ that are reshaping retail around how we want to consume.
So, it’s actually our little smartphone that is redesigning the high street. Uber solves a number of problems and brings an exciting efficiency to a tired and very often miserable market. But its genius is that it answers our emotional needs. We could always get a cab when we wanted one. Now we know they’ll be nice.