If there is one thing you need to be as a personal shopper at Buymie, it is fast on your feet. Were it not for the distinctive red fleece vest he's wearing, you could easily miss the company's chief executive Devan Hughes as he whizzes around a branch of Lidl placing various items in a trolley.
It’s just after 6pm on a Tuesday in mid-December and Hughes is prowling the aisles at the store in the Nutgrove Shopping Centre as he looks to fill an order. It’s relatively quiet but there are plenty of obstacles, not least a young boy sat atop a box containing a Scalextric-like set that he’s hoping his mother will buy him.
“I’m not getting it for you,” she tells him countless times as he “rides” the set around the store, sitting on it and pushing himself along with his feet. “I’ve already bought you an X-Box game and Santy is coming in a week,” she adds.
Swerving to avoid the young lad, Hughes makes a move towards the chilled food sections, scanning the shelves for a particular yoghurt.
Many of us may hate shopping, particularly for groceries, but Buymie’s boss relishes it – even the part where you have to hurriedly pack items in bags.
“I love this bit because it means we’re all done bar the actual delivery,” he tells The Irish Times. “Having said that, packing is where things can easily go wrong. You have to be careful and do it properly so as not to damage any products when putting them away,” he adds.
Given he is the owner and chief executive of the thriving Buymie business, it might surprise some customers to see him personally delivering goods but Hughes likes to still keep his hand in and go out on deliveries at least one day a month.
“Part of it is just that I’ve really come to like many of our customers, some of whom I feel I know well by now, but also it’s important in seeing where possible pain points are in our service and so on,” Hughes says.
Bags packed, we pass the young boy and his mother again on the way out of the store, where he is reluctantly being forced to leave the toy as she gives us a weary smile.
Even when lockdown restrictions were lifted ahead of Christmas, plenty of people are still wary about returning to the shops. This, together with the fact that many of us find shopping for groceries deathly dull, is good news for Buymie.
Also helpful is the fact that grocery sales have soared during the Covid crisis. Shoppers spent €1 billion on groceries during the most recent lockdown with an extra €164 million being spent in November compared to the same month a year ago.
Much of this spend is occurring online, with customers now spending an average of €103 more when shopping for groceries this way than they did last year, according to Kantar.
This is music to the ears of Hughes. His company has developed an app that allows customers to order grocery and household items from supermarkets, including Lidl, Tesco and Dunnes, and have their shopping delivered in as little as one hour by a personal Buymie shopper who works for them rather than the stores.
Buymie currently has over 200,000 registered users and, having started out in Dublin, has extended its service to Cork and also to Bristol, in England. It has other cities in its sights across Britain and Ireland too.
Many shoppers may be relying on individual grocery chains’ own delivery services, but others have turned to Buymie instead as it is quicker. Customers also tend to believe that, due to the personal shopper element, they will be less likely to end up dissatisfied with their order.
The app works a treat. Personal shoppers can visually scan items in store that customers have ordered to ensure they have exactly the right product. If the product isn’t available, they can suggest a substitute but have to okay it with the customer before buying it. Buymie users can also provide additional notes, recording allergies or noting that they only want ripe avocados or steak that has more marbling for example.
“Food is a very personal thing so it is right that people are finicky about what they are putting into their bodies. We ask them to be as specific as they can be with products they want so we can get them the right thing,” says Hughes.
Staff in the Lidl store we are at go out of their way to help us, although experienced Buymie shoppers normally don’t need assistance as they get to know the layout of stores in their patch well. With the clock ticking it’s important to move quickly and, even with delays finding some items, Hughes completes the order in a short time. Paying is an area that slows the process down as items are scanned and packed.
“We’re looking at potentially employing people ourselves full-time instore to get deliveries picked and packed, which would speed up things. We’re also considering how we might be able to just scan and go without having to go through the checkout, which would save a lot of time,” says Hughes.
In his car and on our way to Windy Arbour to drop off the delivery, all is calm with Miles Davis tooting on his trumpet from the stereo as we drive to our destination. Hughes is all chat, describing how the company has seen a 450 per cent growth in business this year alone and that’s not including Christmas shopping.
We arrive at the home of Jutta Baum-Sheridan, one of Buymie’s earliest customers. A teacher who lives with her husband and adult son, Ms Baum-Sheridan greets Hughes like a long-lost friend. She’s been using Buymie since February 2016 and is more than happy with the service.
“We have no car and work a lot so it is not easy to get a bigger shop done,” she says explaining why the family first started using Buymie.
“The key benefits are fast delivery, the fact that they contact me if a product is not available and I can discuss with the person if I want it substituted or not, and of course the fact that I don’t need to drag the stuff to my house by myself. It also helps me to keep to my shopping list as I order nearly every week the same basic stuff,” she says.
Another happy customer is Niamh Kelly, a company director who lives in Monkstown with her teacher husband and two children, aged 4 years and 4 months respectively. Kelly says she started using Buymie when she was pregnant with her elder son and has continued to use it ever since.
“It was the change in my circumstances that led me to Buymie. I work full-time and have two kids so I don’t have the will to be in supermarkets. That’s one benefit of it but another is not having to get a week’s worth of groceries at a time. Now I plan what I want for the evening earlier in the day and get it a short time later. This means there’s less stuff getting thrown out” says Kelly.
“It’s also wonderful for moments when you run short of things. For example, one time I realised I had little baby formula left and was able to order some for immediate delivery. On another occasion friends came round, and we were able to order wine and food to cook on the spur of the moment,” she adds.
Kelly says that having gotten used to using the app for her groceries, there’s no going back.
“I was pregnant during Covid and so that definitely ended any desire to go into supermarkets.I didn’t have to put myself in a position where I had to do it because of the app,” she says.
Customers are obviously happy and so are the supermarkets who are not only gaining extra customers but also valuable insights from the data Buymie collates on what people are buying. But what about the men and women pounding the aisles looking for products and then having to fight through heavy traffic to deliver it?
Jeremy O’Donovan is a Dublin-based law student who has been working for Buymie since September. As he’s studying, the flexibility suits him but that’s not all he’s getting from working for the company.
“I’ve done about 200 orders to date and, as an aspiring entrepreneur, I really like what I’m learning on the job. One of the key things I’ve picked up is that the harder I work, the more I make, and the better service I give, the bigger the tip,” he says.
“The hardest part is when you get really big orders of say 90 items and there is hard labour involved, lugging heavy bags around and so on,” O’Donovan adds.
He says customers appreciate the hard work that buyers are doing and the fact they are taking a risk in the Covid era. He has also found that, having learned about his entrepreneurial leanings, some people are willing to help him with his career.
“One of my customers is an engineer in Hubspot and he has mentored me with my business ideas while others have also given really helpful advice. Buymie is a real people business and the networking that comes from it is brilliant,” he says.
Hughes agrees. He believes the secret to the company’s success is transparency. Shoppers keep in close contact with customers, letting them know if they are running late, if items are out of stock and so on.
“We seek to be as transparent as we can both with the retailers with which we’re working and with our customers, and I think that is something that can’t be bought,” he says, packing shopping bags into the boot of his car and setting off to fulfil another order.