The first time the Smith family went to grocery shopping as a family of four was chaotic to say the least. As they entered Publix on Sunday, their two-week old daughter was in one cart, and their year and a half old son was in the other. “The kids were upset, it was nap time,” Bill Smith recalls. “We just needed to get in and out of the store. It was a huge pain.”
When he and his wife, Pam, made it out at last, Bill knew life wasn’t what it used to be—not just for his family but also for his fledgling delivery service company. “Literally in the parking lot I told my wife: ‘People have been asking for [grocery delivery]. I am going to figure out how to do this.’” That’s just what he did on Monday morning. And with that, the same-day delivery company for Target, Home Depot and Best Buy he’d originally conceived became all about grocery delivery.
Fast forward three years, and Shipt operates in 60 cities with plans to be in 100 by next year. Today 20,000 shoppers nationwide don emerald green T-shirts bearing the Shipt spaceship—a quirky and memorable brand designed by Homewood’s Paul Crawford of Scout Branding Company. Of those 20,000 shoppers, around 500 take on aisles in the Birmingham area, and around 200 are in Homewood, the community Bill and Pam call home (with Bill’s mom and brother each living just a few blocks away from their house in Hollywood to boot).
This year alone Shipt became Costco’s first grocery delivery partner in the South and expanded into cities and chains in the Midwest. This summer they raised $40 million in funding, bringing their total to $65 million. And to top it all off, Bill took home Ernst & Young’s prestigious Entrepreneur of the Year Award—an honor bestowed on Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, Michael Dell of Dell Inc. and Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines in past years.
TechCrunch.com might have said that Birmingham “seems an unlikely base of operations for a rival to San Francisco’s multi-billion dollar food delivery behemoth Instacart,” but it also recognized that Shipt’s Southern “base allowed the company to scale both quickly and (more critically) cheaply.”
But for Bill, Birmingham is about more than that too. It’s about the 1,000 people here who signed up for the delivery services in just three weeks before Shipt launched back in 2014 when the concept didn’t exist outside of Northeastern cities like New York. It’s about how those 1,000 people showed him they were onto a concept that would take off.
It’s about the city’s positive energy and hope for the future, the recently renewed pride of place here coupled with the ease of living that Bill notices anew when he returns from travels to other parts of the country, ready to get back to his favorite restaurants of course. It’s about the explosion in innovation fueled by real estate development and business collaboration, unearthing and developing potential talent already here—just as a mentor did for him when he was 16, the catalyst for him remaining here to start businesses.
And it’s about the hospitality and heart for service innate in people here that have become the heart of Shipt—an undeniably Southern culture now a part of operations across the country.
“What we have found is it’s really refreshing for people,” Bill says. “We have an office on the West Coast, and the people that work for us there tell us we are so different from any of those other companies. They like that. It’s something that people are attracted to.”
And really, the heart of that is caring about people, right down to how each shopper interacts with a customer. Bill can rattle off story after story from the past few days and weeks alone as he flips through screen shots of them on his phone—of a shopper checking on a customer who wasn’t answering her door who, as it turned out, had had a stroke. Of another shopper noticing a customer was sick and bringing her flowers from the store. All of these actions are organic, but through social media sharing the spark catches on not just in Birmingham but wherever Shipt goes.
“What we have been able to do is take something that was very small and in Birmingham and special and scale it and maintain that, which has been the cool thing,” Bill says. “I think the key is it’s part of our culture and part of the way we treat our people. If you treat people in the right way, they are going to feel empowered and they going to want to do great things.”
Technology is key to the #shiptlife as well—as is evident by the rows of programmers and engineers filling their office in the John Hand building downtown. “People are changing the way they shop, and we are right in the middle of it,” Bill says. Step one was to take away the pain of actually going to the store. Up next, Shipt plans to tackle easing figuring out what to buy, when to buy it and what to cook.
“We want to move into all the other pain points around grocery shopping and simplify them,” Bill says. “That’s where the technology part of the business is really key. We are starting to leverage data science to predict what customers need and when they need it. There might be a point where you don’t need to think if you need milk or eggs or bread, it just shows up at the same time automatically. That’s where I want to go.”
It might already be obvious by reading thus far, but building business is in Bill’s blood. Upon request, he got his first briefcase for his birthday at age 5, and he started he first job at age 11. Not far into his career he had started, grown and sold Insight Card Services, which offers reloadable prepaid Visa cards to consumers. It’s all developed a business skillset he believes you don’t learn in school but rather by “getting in there and making mistakes.”
“I have made a ton of mistakes along the way, but I think the things I have learned along the way is learning how to work with people,” Bill says. “I knew how to treat people at an early age because my parents taught me how to treat people, how to be compassionate. I think growing up in a diverse place helps you know how to connect with all kinds of people. That’s one of the things that Pam and I love about Homewood is it’s very diverse. You need to know that in the business world because everybody is not the same.”
Fittingly, Shipt’s top focus as a company is on high quality customer experience. “If you think about some of the best companies out there, companies that come to mind are Chick-fil-A and Southwest Airlines, companies that have great cultures and serve people—that’s what people want,” Bill says. “And that’s what I want as a customer. I love going to Chick-fil-A, I love flying Southwest because I know it’s going to be an awesome experience.”
How does the Shipt team achieve awesome? By shopping regularly. “We go out there and see what’s going on and how we can improve the process and the experience,” Bill says. “We just believe in being really connected to the front lines.”
Their core customer is families similar to Bill’s and similar to their shoppers’, who are often stay-at-home moms. “We only hire people who understand groceries,” Bill says. “It’s a diverse group, but we see strength with moms serving other moms.”
Bill might no longer have an infant in the grocery cart, but now that his kids are 2 1/2 and 4, he’s well acquainted with shopping with and feeding toddlers and preschoolers, as is his wife who is always sharing her feedback with him for Shipt. He knows Shipt’s core demographic because he is its core demographic—giving him a leg up as he sets forth to lead Shipt into its 100th city, and possibly into outer space too.
Meet Shipt Shopper Lindsey Ward
Homewood mom Lindsey Ward shops for Shipt while her twin boys are in mother’s day out and on the weekends, too. She signs up for the hours she wants to work, and then similar to Uber, alerts pop up to claim on her app when jobs are available. From there, she gets paid a percentage of the grocery bill—plus tips.
Why Shipt Shop: I love cooking and like grocery shopping, picking out produce and meats. I have several friends who work for Shipt, and I found out more through them. I thought it was the perfect outlet as a stay-at-home mom because I can pick my hours and it provides a little extra income.
Why I Like It: I fell in love with it. It’s fun. I try to treat it like a game. How do I maximize my time to get in as many orders as I can? People are so appreciative when you deliver it to their door, and you meet so many elderly people who can’t get out and shop and want someone to talk to.
What I Learn: It’s interesting to me what people actually buy because we all buy different brands and have a different meal rotation. It’s made me think outside the box sometimes and try new brands and products. One Monday in Homewood there were five or six of us Shipt shoppers in the Publix on Green Springs at one time. We don’t know each other, but we talk to each other and ask each other questions.