By Neerja Deodhar Mar. 30, 2022
It’s easy to understand where the customer-is-god mentality is headed when entitlement and a need for things is created when it doesn’t even exist. It’s the clearest sign yet that we live in the age, not of enlightenment but entitlement.
In an urban Indian city, there are many undignified ways to die.
Being stuck in traffic, unable to move even after the light has turned green three times over, induces rage. But once you add an ambulance to this image, rage turns into anxiety — even fear. The ambulance blares its horn and flashes its lights, and the sea of vehicles parts, allowing it to cut through like an awkward teenager at a social event. You’re left feeling unsettled: What if it was you in the ambulance, and the traffic did not budge? What if you didn’t make it to the hospital on time? All the decades of your existence would be reduced to nothing in the face of poor infrastructure. Satish Shah’s D’Mello in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro may have been the victim of a brutal murderer, but at least his ride in a coffin on the highways of Mumbai was smooth — a feat possible only in the middle of the night.
It was ambulances that countless people brought up when multiple food and delivery companies began promising meals, groceries and package deliveries within 30, 20 and even 10 minutes. These people asked two questions: ‘What is the need?’ and ‘Why can’t this be applied to ambulances?’ Entrepreneurs who implement such ‘innovations’ would ponder these questions if they weren’t obsessed with taking the ‘consumer is king’ philosophy to its most extreme, grotesque eventuality: the consumer is no longer king, but a spoilt emperor, drunk on power and stuffed with biryani (bought using a discount coupon, obviously) until he can eat no more. Entitlement is the main dish on offer; everything else is incidental.
The consumer is no longer king, but a spoilt emperor, drunk on power and stuffed with biryani until he can eat no more.
This need to serve and give into customers’ entitlement and impatience is not new. As far back as the 1970s, a beloved pizza brand in the US decided to offer 30-minute deliveries. In India, this dutiful appeasement of customers comes with allowing them to track the delivery agent’s every move. The agent’s race against time plays out like a video game where the player has to dodge villains to reach their destination. This model is not without entertainment. But don’t accuse these companies of being inhuman and reducing agents to pawns in a game — they provide a detailed summary of the delivery agent’s life and personality, for your consumption. Bonus points if the agent is a woman! Maybe it’ll warm your cold heart right before you give them a 2.5/5 rating. Maybe it’ll convince you to add a 20 rupee tip to compensate for the lack of a fair salary or fairer working conditions.
Could the comfortable, air-conditioned, work-from-home life exist without delivery agents? Possibly not, because that would mean dealing with the consequences of our actions like actual adults. Ran out of milk in the morning? Drink your coffee black. Forgot to buy meat in time for dinner? Make veg biryani and sit through the ridicule of your guests. Left behind your phone charger at a disappointing date’s home? It’s too bad you can’t ghost them just yet. The lack of delivery apps would force a whole generation of urban, tech-savvy Indians to get off the couch and act, instead of delegate. Everyone’s a CEO during that exhilarating moment where you get to exercise control.
The need to serve and give into customers’ entitlement and impatience is not new.
One founder’s explanation for ridiculously short delivery times is that consumers can no longer wait, that they don’t want to plan ahead. But this leaves out a crucial detail: The demand for instant delivery would not exist if it wasn’t manufactured. The consumer, who knows they have to wait 10 minutes (at the very least) for a roti or omlette to reach their plates from the kitchens in their homes, would never have imagined or fantasized about such short delivery times. A demand has been created where none existed. But given the choice now, few millennials and Gen-Zs would say no to within-the-hour deliveries; fewer still would opt to go out and actually buy a product from a local store. As more apps join the bandwagon, they solidify instant delivery’s position as the default. Nothing can or will come in the way of this instant gratification.
The demand for instant delivery would not exist if it wasn’t manufactured.
Delivery apps and startups have taken this sordid epiphany and used it to build a vicious model: one that makes agents the face of their businesses without making them employees on their payrolls. Every single order they fulfill on every day they work is scrutinised. They are made to seem like they are directly responsible for ensuring you, the customer, does not go hungry. And yet they are ‘partners’, not employees with contracts, which keeps them outside the protections of labour laws. When they protest to demand better working conditions, they are sued in return (in case you should be under the delusion that these companies possess the ability to care). As delivery times get smaller, so will the humanity afforded to agents. Claims have been made to counter this suspicion, but if safety and security were real priorities, why offer a service that will certainly put everything at risk?
As delivery times get smaller, so will the humanity afforded to agents.
Businesses in the delivery game have a transactional user interface, but their appearance on social media is a stark contrast: memes, vibes, relatable jokes and curated responses to consumers are all employed to replicate the warmth and approachability of a kirana store. The stories of the founders and CEOs of these businesses are painted in shiny, aspirational colours — of the young ages at which they start, the break-neck speed at which they grow. Their keenness to listen to what their customers want and need. The exploitation of delivery agents is collateral damage; the customer’s guilt-free, stress-free life and the founder’s vision is the bigger picture. Entitlement is, after all, a two-way street.
But what is this vision and the “innovation” that propels it further? It is the coming-together of logistics, capital and tech — and an invisible human cost. It is remarkably improving some lives as it clearly endangers others. As these startups and ventures scale, it is inevitable that they will treat the real people who make their businesses viable as inventory — useful until they are not, and ultimately, perishable.
As these ventures scale, it is inevitable that they will treat the real people who make their businesses viable as inventory
A lawmaker recently said that even the police department’s emergency wing cannot offer the swift commitment that express delivery promises. But I suppose this is the natural outcome of consumers who don’t yell at their elected representatives as fervently as they do at apps and customer care services. The beloved pizza brand that kick-started the 30-minute delivery trend abandoned the idea after multiple lawsuits involving injuries sustained by people on the road. But India remains one of the countries where the trend survived and evidently continues to thrive. There’s an open secret about the country’s favourite instant ramen: despite its advertising claims, it does not cook within two minutes. Maybe India’s instant delivery obsession will force even this packet of ramen into submission. As it has the rest of us.
Neerja Deodhar writes about art and culture when she isn't looking up pasta recipes. She tweets at @neerjadeodhar and runs the newsletter 'Lunch Club for Three'.