The global disruption of the retail industry has been felt locally over the past year. While large stores such as Kmart and Toys “R” Us closed, new delivery services have entered the Charlottesville market.
This spring, University of Virginia students were introduced to goPuff, a “mobile convenience store” founded in Philadelphia by Yakir Gola and Rafael Ilishayev.
As a student at Drexel University in 2014, Gola found himself making frequent late-night drives to various convenience stores for party supplies. He and Ilishayev resolved to create a one-stop shop for snacks, drinks, smoking paraphernalia and other goods through a mobile app.
GoPuff’s product descriptions and social media feeds have given the brand a bawdy, irreverent voice aimed at college students and young professionals.
“We share very millennial-focused, edgy content,” said Gola. “We understand what our customers want.”
GoPuff quickly caught on at colleges in Philadelphia, and expanded into Boston and Washington, D.C., by 2016. That year, the company closed an $8.25 million Series A funding round that has fueled its expansion into 30 more U.S. cities. GoPuff’s inventory also has grown to include thousands of products, such as toiletries, electronic accessories and over-the-counter medications.
GoPuff operates primarily within Charlottesville city limits between noon and 4:20 a.m. Items are usually delivered in 30 minutes or less for a flat fee of $1.95, which is waived for orders of $49 or more.
While goPuff delivers alcohol in some locations, that service is not yet available in Virginia.
“Right now, we are focused on being magically fast, and listening and relating to the customer,” Gola said.
GoPuff drivers deliver goods from company-owned warehouses instead of buying from existing stores. GoPuff stocks its local inventory in a 5,120-square-foot building on Harris Street that previously housed Charlottesville Press.
“GoPuff controls the customer’s entire experience, from the moment they check out to when they have their order in hand,” Gola said. “We handle the supply chain, the logistics and everything else.”
GoPuff will compete with several convenience stores on the Corner for UVa students’ spending money.
Last summer, a Sheetz Cafe opened on University Avenue, joining a CVS Pharmacy and two locally owned stores — Corner Grocery and Cohn’s — on the Corner.
The Sheetz Cafe is a combination restaurant and convenience store that Sheetz is piloting as a potential business model for a future in which electric and autonomous vehicles reduce fuel sales at its gas stations.
Like brick-and-mortar “C-stores,” goPuff operates on the premise that its convenience to consumers will make them tolerant of higher prices. On some products, goPuff’s prices are even higher than those at convenience stores.
GoPuff sells cans of Pringles chips for $3.49 in Charlottesville, compared with $2.59 at the Corner Sheetz and $1.99 at the nearby CVS. To wash the taste of pizza-flavored potato chips from your mouth, you can add an 8.5-ounce bottle of Listerine to your goPuff order for $5.95 — or pick one up for $4.29 at the Corner CVS.
GoPuff’s prices for ice cream are more competitive; it sells pints of Ben & Jerry’s for $5.69 before the delivery fee, compared with $6.29 at CVS.
Cost comparisons aside, only goPuff gives UVa students the option of avoiding a trip to the store altogether when they’re sick or hung over, busy entertaining party guests, or afraid of being judged for late-night junk food purchases.
“We are all about the impulse and instant gratification,” Gola said. “Our purpose as an organization is to deliver the moment that matters most and create more time for people in their day. ... There are endless use cases for this.”
When a local online grocery ceased to operate in Charlottesville, another delivery service moved quickly to fill the void.
Relay Foods, founded by Zach Buckner in 2009, merged with Colorado-based Door to Door Organics in January 2017. The merger resulted in the layoffs of 48 employees at Relay’s warehouse in Charlottesville.
Door to Door Organics abruptly closed in November, blaming “recent events in the online grocery industry” for limiting its funding prospects. The announcement came three months after Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion.
Instacart, based in San Francisco, began delivering groceries in Charlottesville last August.
Sam Donoghue, Instacart’s senior operations manager for the Mid-Atlantic region, said the company has contracted with about 100 people in Charlottesville to fulfill orders from Costco, CVS, Giant, Petco, Wegmans and Whole Foods.
“Those are stores that people love, and [in Charlottesville] they are all in the same zone,” Donoghue said. “It makes a lot of sense for Instacart to be there.”
Locally, Instacart orders of $35 or more come with a $5.99 delivery fee and a $5 service fee, as well as a suggested tip for the driver. Customers can avoid the fees with an Instacart Express membership for $14.99 per month, or $149 annually.
Currently valued at $4.3 billion, Instacart is expanding rapidly nationwide. Donoghue said the company’s first year in Charlottesville has been successful.
“People are busy these days, and Instacart is a big time-saver,” he said. “It’s not that people are lazy, it’s about how they value their time. I think that’s how people are starting to see it.”