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DoorDash danger? Experts say online food delivery has its pitfalls

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 6/27/2019 Sandy Mazza and Brad Schmitt
a person sitting at a table with a laptop and smiling at the camera © Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.

CMA Awards week is a whirlwind for 27-year-old Music Row publicist Taelor Owen.

"The emails never stop, the events and parties never stop, and often they don’t have food, just lots of alcohol," she said. "And I’m exhausted and hungry when I get home."

So Owen calls Postmates delivery service to bring her favorite shrimp appetizer — "uh, it’s the best" — from upscale restaurant Virago.

Which is only a 12-minute walk from her place.

GRUBHUB: Nashvillians really love bourbon chicken and chili cheese fries

Then there's the staff at the White Bridge Road doctor's office that has lunch delivered nearly every day — from restaurants that are practically next door.

"I mean, it’s a short walk, but then I have to go down elevator and walk across the parking lot," said 21-year-old Nephrology Associates office assistant Leah Jones.

"And right now, it’s scorching hot outside, ya know?"

Leah Jones, 21, a staffer at a Nashville doctor's office that uses a restaurant delivery service nearly every day for lunch. © Submitted Leah Jones, 21, a staffer at a Nashville doctor's office that uses a restaurant delivery service nearly every day for lunch.

Delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash, Uber Eats and Postmates are growing rapidly in the U.S.'s competitive $17 billion online food delivery market. The platforms wouldn't release numbers for Nashville area.

But Uber Eats had $7.9 billion in total food sales in 2018, according to company filings. And, like its competitors, its revenue is rising quickly. The company had a 31% bump in the first quarter of 2019 compared to that period in 2018. 

Grubhub enjoyed a 39% year-over-year boost in the first three months of 2019, posting revenues of $324 million. In 2018, Grubhub had $5.1 billion in total food sales. Uber Eats has offices around the world, while Grubhub operates only in the U.S. 

Grubhub said its most popular restaurants in Nashville are mostly local comfort food options: La Vera Pizza on Charlotte Pike, Tazza Cafe in Hendersonville, and Tower Market and Deli in East Nashville. 

a person sitting at a table with a laptop and smiling at the camera: Taelor Owen enjoys a fettuccine Alfredo delivered from Maggiano's. Owen, a 27-year-old Music Row publicist, treats herself and calls Postmates service often. She estimated she calls Postmates or DoorDash three times a week. © Larry McCormack / The Tennessean Taelor Owen enjoys a fettuccine Alfredo delivered from Maggiano's. Owen, a 27-year-old Music Row publicist, treats herself and calls Postmates service often. She estimated she calls Postmates or DoorDash three times a week.

Ordering food online can be addictive

Those restaurants, like all participating eateries across town, are increasingly urged to shift their traditional business models to accommodate more and more online orders for convenience-hungry customers. 

But there can be too much of a good thing — the accessibility of so many at-your-fingertips meal options comes with psychological and personal finance pitfalls, experts say.

It can even become an addiction.

"When it comes to internet addiction, necessity is not the mother of invention. Convenience is," said David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

"When you find something desirable (online), there is a small blip of dopamine released in your brain. And that increases the likelihood you're going to do that behavior again. It's addictive," said Greenfield, also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.

For many, the draw of a tasty dinner a few clicks away can lead to a painful drain on their bank accounts. 

Food-delivery services increase the cost of menu items and charge delivery fees on top of that. Customers also usually pay a tip for drivers.

a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Dustin Barnes, digital strategist at The Tennessean and avid online food delivery customer. © George Walker IV / The Tennessea Dustin Barnes, digital strategist at The Tennessean and avid online food delivery customer.

Tennessean newsroom staffer Dustin Barnes, 35, often pays Uber Eats $10 to deliver about $3.50 worth of fast food to his apartment — from a McDonald's about 80 yards away. 

"I feel guilty," Barnes said, adding he can rack up about $500 a month in food delivery charges. "I spend too much."

Avoiding others

Music Row publicist Owen also thinks she spends too much on restaurant food delivery, which she uses an average of three times a week.

"I get that credit card statement, and I’m so ashamed," she said. "You’re like, 'I literally could’ve bought a flight to Switzerland.'"

For younger generations, though, the convenience is often worth the cost. 

"Millennials didn't like cooking before Postmates was a thing," said Kelly Goldsmith, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. "Now that they've got some money in their pocket, it's no surprise they're not cooking. People are placing a higher premium on their time and convenience."

The vast majority of Grubhub food deliveries are to homes, according to the company's survey

a person using a laptop: At her desk, 27-year-old Music Row publicist Taelor Owen stirs her fettuccine Alfredo, delivered from Maggiano's. © Larry McCormack / The Tennessean At her desk, 27-year-old Music Row publicist Taelor Owen stirs her fettuccine Alfredo, delivered from Maggiano's.

Single parents, busy professionals and other demographics bring a built-in demand for such services, said Ernest Baskin, assistant professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University. 

That comes with a growing tendency to avoid other people, he said. 

"Now, consumers have a definite preference for getting the human out of the equation as much as possible," Baskin said. "People would much prefer to click a few buttons rather than go up to a human and make an order."

And that can be dangerous, Greenfield said.

"We're social creatures and thrive in a social matrix," he said. "We do not do well when isolated."

Experts recommended being alert to the drawbacks, from decreased social life to a diminished bank account.

"The first question I would say is: Is it impacting my ability to live a quality life in other ways? Am I spending money I don't have?" Greenfield said.

Sometimes that answer is no, he added.

"If I have discretionary income to do it, then it's a matter of values in terms of how I spend my money. Just because it's new technology doesn't mean it's bad."

Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at smazza@tennessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.

Reach Brad Schmitt at brad@tennessean.com or 615-259-8384 or Twitter @bradschmitt.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: DoorDash danger? Experts say online food delivery has its pitfalls

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