Many of us haven’t seen the inside of a grocery store for about a year, and those of us who have must admit it’s like an Amazon warehouse version of The Hunger Games. For those of us who actually like to shop, the idea of leisurely cruising the aisles, pinching produce and running into neighbors is a lost art.
While the pandemic has changed us as consumers, relying on faceless delivery platforms that have recently come under fire from businesses as well as customers, something that was once only available to the wealthy has been reborn for the masses – the personal shopper.
The Dumpling grocery delivery app has grown exponentially, providing personal assistant-type services that include everything from picking up ladders at Home Depot to shopping for shoes.
Unlike other delivery platforms that work with independent contractors, Dumpling helps individuals start their own grocery shopping and delivery business. Personal shoppers set their own schedules and pricing, and keep 100% of their tips. Dumpling provides the technology and app needed for them to get their orders.
The consumer downloads the app, puts in their ZIP code, and chooses the shopper they want based on reviews, personal profiles and locations. Shoppers are free to go to any store and farmers markets – which are not always options on other platforms – and also provide customers with receipts, purchasing items at in-store prices.
Christopher Murillo is a full-time social worker who locates permanent housing for the chronically homeless who have an HIV or AIDS diagnosis. When COVID-19 started, he wanted to continue servicing his community by signing onto Dumpling and becoming a personal grocery shopper for those who couldn’t go to the market. He found it therapeutic.
Funded by the Department of Health Services and the Ryan White Foundation, Murillo handles 20 clients on a day-to-day basis, maintaining their housing, medication compliance, making sure their health is up to par and that they make their appointments, meeting with them via Zoom on a weekly basis to keep up on any kind of assistance they might need.
“I don’t do well on downtime,” says Murillo, who has amassed 84 regular weekly and monthly personal shopping clients. “I’ve always been a go-getter and a hustler. I’m a busybody who likes to make things happen, so when things slowed down during the pandemic, it was something to keep me busy and help my own mental health during isolation. It’s more than just grocery shopping. I’ve developed some lasting personal relationships.”
Just ask Dodi Fromson, the tech-savvy and physically fit 85-year-old widow of foreign correspondent and USC Journalism professor Murray Fromson.
“I don’t dare get COVID and when the variants popped up, I shut down and stopped shopping at the market,” says Fromson. “Friends introduced me to the app and it turned out better than great because I met Chris. He’ll go anywhere for me, where Instacart won’t go to my favorite store, Trader Joe’s. I’m not going to hook up with people who don’t go where I go. He’s meticulous about my orders and leaves them safely on my back porch. My family doesn’t live here, so they can’t do a thing for me. I’d be lost without Chris. I have a normal selection of food and don’t have to carry heavy bundles into the house. He’ll call me from the store with the list and check if I need anything else. He’s so thoughtful and outgoing and makes it easy. Once this is all over I’m having him over for dinner.”
“I go to the Nosh or Brooklyn Water Bagel every Sunday to pick up her pumpernickel bagel and take it to her house. She likes to start the week with bagels and cream cheese,” says Murillo, who also has working moms and professionals as clients. “We talk a lot over the phone outside of Dumpling and she relies on me. We’ve gotten to know each other.”
Dumpling customers are drawn to the app for the personal touch that the community has come to miss during the pandemic, much like that welcoming face in front of the house of your favorite restaurant.
Cindy Pao grew up on a farm in Taiwan in a house full of home chefs always experimenting with food. Before the pandemic, she co-owned a dumpling business called Bling Bling Dumplings. You’d find her at farmers markets, Coachella and other music festivals. All that came to an end last March. In April she needed a job and started working at another delivery service, but missed that human interaction. She jumped over to Dumpling and has racked up about 300 customers – 50 weekly and monthly regulars.
“I love shopping,” Pao tells L.A. Weekly while carefully picking out produce on one of her runs to Gelson’s. “We get to know our customers, their families, what they can and can’t eat. I go to different stores for them, because not all of them have what they need. If one place is out of green onions, I’ll go to another store. It’s like this mission I have to complete. It’s like a scavenger hunt. It has to be good quality, and I don’t like seeing them pay more than they have to. I always pull from the back row so they have the freshest option. I’d rather go to another store to get them the freshest meat possible and the cuts they want.”
Nikki Schulman is a fulltime mom working from home with a six-year-old and senior parents, who opted out of grocery shopping early on in the pandemic and tried various services to help juggle life. She was attracted to Pao’s personal profile on the app and has been a loyal customer ever since.
“I rely heavily on Trader Joe’s and other specialty markets and am very picky about my produce,” Schulman says. “The other platform wasn’t covering them. Cindy is the most careful and thoughtful shopper I’ve ever met. She’ll text me from every aisle in the store. Do I want a ripe avocado or a hard one? She knows what kind of olive oil I like. I was sick of getting hard and smashed produce with the other services.”
Other platforms use online prices as opposed to the store price and don’t provide in-store receipts to customers. These personal shoppers will use coupons, buy sale items and make use of their own warehouse and grocery store memberships to help keep costs down. Pao attaches customer receipts in a small envelope with a thank you note on her hauls. And to cut down on waste, she’ll pop her head into the produce back room for a free box to re-use as a receptacle for the groceries.
And it’s not just groceries. She has delivered donated food to hospitals for customers and bought gifts for kids including going to American Girl to pick out a doll for a two-year-old.
“One customer wanted me to buy Lysol, disposable gowns and masks to donate to his church,” says Pao. “I found a place with 200 disposable gowns, 50 bottles of Lysol spray, wipes and gloves. It took me two days to gather it all together. I was so happy to be able to help him help his community.”
Founded in 2017, Dumpling offers 2,000 personal shoppers/businesses nationwide, with about 200 in the greater L.A. area. On average, shoppers make $30 to $40 per order.
“The pandemic has accentuated the need for personal connections as customers want to know who’s shopping for them instead of being randomly matched to just anyone available,” Dumpling Co-Founder and Co-CEO Joel Shapiro tells L.A. Weekly. “For some elderly customers, their shoppers have also become their friends who run odd errands for them from time to time – all tying back to the importance of building personal relationships.”
Murillo says because the community has been starved for personal interaction for the past year – especially among seniors and shut-ins – reconnecting with others is the necessary future of shopping.
“I think the business will continue to get better as the pandemic wanes,” says Murillo in the Costco frozen food aisle. “I think the service on other platforms will continue to decrease and more people will become aware of the personal shopper that they can work with on a regular and flexible basis and move towards that in the future.”