Soap.com Slings Mud at Corner Stores, Talking to People, Carrying Things

by Lauren Pabst, Your Eye on the Street (you better pick it up)

New Yorkers can’t get their own toiletries either or they don’t have to anymore.

Several cars of the L train are now brought to you by Soap.com – apparently for people who love Fresh Direct, but don’t love their selection of Neutrogena acne cleansers. The folks at Soap.com will deliver your drug store needs (presumably not prescriptions, but perhaps) like, according to an advertised goodie box, toilet paper, makeup, laundry soap and you know, etc. This service is also for people who have a doorman or someone to receive these packages as it is probably a new level of indignity to have to chase down a missed-delivery box of toilet paper for your fifth floor walk-up apartment.

No word on whether they will have the seasonal candy selection, surprise inventory of $5.99 Ed Hardy-esque tank tops, linger-worthy slow jams (Luther Vandross? Brian McKnight, anyone? Is that Lisa Stansfield??) and impulse-bought Snickers bars of my local Walgreens in Brooklyn, but my guess would be not.

This reporter finds herself yet again reminiscing about an already devolved chain store experience, like when I wistfully recall my time working at Blockbuster Video during the VHS-DVD changeover (ca. 2001). In my old neighborhood of Morningside Heights, (which is in Manhattan and thus eligible for same-day delivery from Soap.com) I used to frequent Claremont Chemists, which is visible from the elevated 1 train on Broadway (the skeletal trestle of which serves as one of the establishing shots in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, or at least in Wayne Brady’s um, reinterpretation) and is an independent business. No, they didn’t have Tom’s of Maine natural $5.00 toothpaste, which my fluoride-Googling self was seeking, but they had plenty. I felt good ringing the tiny bell strapped to their door. And I bet that maybe if I brought up the whole Tom’s of Maine thing to them, they might have considered stocking it (but I didn’t want to be that person, as I eggshell-walked over there feeling like a gentrification, personified. All that fluoride-Googling had gotten me paranoid).

Of course, like the future customers of Soap.com, convenience is what draws me away from patronizing the tiny drugstore located further down Union Ave – they’re usually closed by the time I am walking home from the train, and the comparatively massive Walgreen’s, open ‘til midnight, with its luxuriant parking lot is just there, looming, lit up like a giant bug zapper, only advertising fridge packs of Coca-Cola, 2 for $5.

Claremont Chemist, Broadway & Claremont, New York, NY

Looking down on Claremont Chemist, while looking out for #1

Maybe it’s dumb to miss consumer-culture interactions and it doesn’t matter how we get our soap, but this seems like a dangerous moment of cyber laziness. First we got our books online – sure, a big selection! – then, our music – ditto, as well as instant (often gratis) gratification – then in a bit of an only-in-New York leap, our groceries via the launch of the still-successful FreshDirect in 2002 – for those who have no time or no desire to feel their own grapefruits, prior to selection.

As Tom Robbins of the Village Voice reported in 2007, FreshDirect, the go-to fresh food delivery service for New Yorkers, whose lumbering trucks could be seen idling outside of posh neighborhoods all over the city, and whose witty ads stirred new layers of convenience and distance from the chores associated with food and eating, this happy green and orange company, may have been behind calling ICE on its workforce (undocumented workers from Mexico and other nations preparing and serving the food of Americans, immensely wealthy companies making cash off their labor and then turning their backs on them: surprise, surprise) when the employees began to talk of unionization with the Teamsters instead of the union that capped their salaries at $18/hour.

Anyway. Soap.com could just be the savior of people who have embarrassing body fungi requiring over-the-counter ointment.  And lazy-ass people who don’t like the non-stop barrage of (usually earned) attitude that some Duane Reade employees are serving up, perhaps a side-effect of so many customers treating them with the same amount of human interaction as a vending machine.

But perhaps we need a little coaxing, still. According to a profile of the campaign in the Campaign Spotlight Advertising column of the New York Times, e-commerce company and Soap.com helmer Quidsi, which also runs Diapers.com (okay, that one seems more intuitive), has dedicated half a million dollars to pushing Soap.com in the New York City market alone. And the L train is just the first stop on their courting of the “hipster” public, or those who delight in wackiness:

“…there is a grass-roots element to the campaign, handled by an agency named Bandwidth, featuring 30 people dressed as a character, Box Boy, meant to represent the packages that Soap.com delivers to customers.

“Box Boy is turning up in locations like Bryant Park and Times Square and can be glimpsed riding the subway.”

Indeed. With ads proclaiming “Less Schlep, More Shop,” and (my personal favorite) “The end of an errand,” as well as “We carry it all so you don’t have to,” and the literal-minded “Next stop: home (not the store). “Why rush to the store when you can rush to the door?” Whoa there. Not too fast in your socks on the hardwood floors – did you remember to add band-aids to that electronic basket? (wink)  But the most head-scratching and juvenile: “Life without Soap.com stinks!”

They’re selling another drug: hard-core convenience for customers whose drug store needs (or wants) out-strip their upper arm strength:

“’The convenience of shopping from home means you don’t have to schlep heavy things,’ [Soap.com marketing director David] Zhang says, and the selection on Soap.com gives a customer ‘the ability to have access to products you wouldn’t find at the corner drugstore,’ bodega or the kind of scaled-down grocery store in many city neighborhoods.”

The article continues:

“Christina Carbonell, vice president for marketing at Quidsi, notes the prevalence in New York of the “incredibly busy families” that are “among our core audience” for Soap.com.

“‘Versus spending hours in a store, they can spend time doing things that are fun,’ she says.”

Note that they’re targeting busy families, not people who for whatever reason can’t carry their own stuff who, presumably, that rincon-situated bodega can arrange delivery for in the event that it’s needed. These jet-set New York families, so incredible in their business, they don’t have time to stop at the store to get the most personal things they require to keep those bodies running smoothly. Ahem.

“Ms. Carbonell likens Soap.com to a spate of businesses offering convenience, among them FreshDirect, Netflix and Zipcar.

“The message is that ‘it doesn’t have to be hard to get basic essentials,’ she says.”

Yikes. It’s already not hard for their target audience “to get the basic essentials,” strictly speaking. I mean, what kinds of images would that phrase call up in many, many other parts of the world, where boxes of medical and sanitary supplies are another matter entirely?

I, for one, am not going to be using Soap.com. But I don’t think that my life is going to “stink.” I have grown too accustomed to the charms of these  “corner drugstores” being derided by Soap.com’s pushers (Claremont Chemist is literally on the corner. And it’s the best one) and also their bigger, convenience stakes-raising, national but still local job-providing mutant chain cousins. I’m not telling you what to do. But I, for one, need to see what a given hair color actually might look like via dozens of attractively looped locks glued to a sales shelf in an alluring hair rainbow. Okay? Can I do that? No offense to anyone dealing with fungus.

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