Highly determined, stingy Londoners are gaming UberEats — the food delivery service from ride-hailing company Uber — to get hundreds of pounds-worth of free food.
I know because I’m one of them.
Over the last few months I’ve feasted on pizzas, wraps, snacks and sweets, exotic salads and expensive drinks. All in all, I’ve received nearly £200-worth of free food since the service launched in London on June 16, 2016, while spending just £10 of my own money on food over the same time period.
It comes from a combination of order screw-ups, delivery delays, and promotional codes sent to me via friends — and some people have managed to make far, far more than that.
We’re in the middle of an arms race — and consumers are reaping the benefits
If there’s one thing you need to know about the food delivery industry, it’s that it is insanely competitive right now.
The major players are locked in a billion-dollar arms race to attract customers, as smaller players get squeezed out of existence.
UberEats, from $69 billion ride-hailing behemoth Uber, is expanding in dozens of countries around the world. London-based Deliveroo raised a huge $275 million (£209 million) funding round from VC investors in August. Dutch Takeaway.com is going public at a $1 billion valuation. Delivery Hero, from Germany, has taken out a whopping eight-digit loan.
Just Eat and Takeaway.com, supposed competitors, have sold a number of local businesses to one another in various markets, in an apparent attempt to avoid additional competition. And Deliveroo and Just Eat have both recently had rebrands to spruce up their image.
For price-conscious consumers, this is all very good news.
The startup ecosystem’s addiction to venture capital means we’re living in a golden age of promotional offers. “There may may never be a better time to be a consumer,” Maya Kosoff argues over at Vanity Fair. “You can get so much — subscriptions to online retailers, meals, rides, even housecleaning — at little to no cost.”
In the food delivery industry, this easy access to huge pools of capital and fierce competition translates into a bonanza for customers. Signing up? Have some free money! Your meal was slightly late? Have some free money! Your order contained a wrong item? Have some free money! You referred a friend to sign up? Have some free some money!
I’ve had nearly £200 of free food — but I’m small fry compared to some
I got my first free food from UberEats on June 17, a day after it launched in the UK. It offered all users a free £10 voucher for their first meal — but a friend managed to find a £25 voucher, so I opted for that instead.
Since then, a stream of mistakes has given me free meal after free meal. Each time a meal was late, or incorrect, I’d email the UberEats support team — and they’d send me another voucher to say sorry.
In all my time using it, I’ve only bought an unsubsidised meal once — a wrap, for £7.70. (I have spent a little more than that, because some of the orders I’ve placed have been a pound or so over the value of the promotional code.)
Because of the slightly ridiculous size of some of these codes — up to £30 a pop — I’ve ended up bequeathing free food on colleagues at random. “First person to reply gets a free lunch!” I simply can’t eat all the free food Uber is throwing at me.
I’m definitely not the only one doing this. A very unscientific straw poll of my office found that almost everyone who uses the service has been given promotional codes by Uber, largely because of delays with their orders (particularly in the few weeks after launch). The worst I’ve experienced is 70 minutes late; one colleague had to wait three hours.
All in all, I’ve had £180 of free food. It’s the most out of anyone I know personally — the closest is my colleague Sam Shead, who racked up £80 in the first month or so.
UberEats eventually even refused to give me any more free food, telling me that the volume of my complaints was “atypical” of an ordinary UberEats user. When I replied explaining it was effectively penalising me because they had screwed up my orders too many times, the company changed its mind — and sent me an extra £10 voucher for my trouble.
But I’m small fry compared to some.
A reader who asked to be referred to only as Sonia emailed me to say that together, she and her partner have managed to hail £462.12 of free food (spending £41.12 due to sometimes going over the promotional amount).
They managed this by using an account each, and complaining if the food took even a minute longer than the 30 minute window promised.
“The thing is it is very very rare that the food come on time it is always a few minutes late,” she said in an email “Although it didn’t bother me I still claimed for every time the driver was late. Each order I placed I used the credit and got £30 back straight away. I once even order[ed] a can of coke to my door and got £30 when the driver was late!”
Unsurprisingly, UberEats did not take kindly to this.
The company cut off her access to promotional codes because of “the unprecedented frequency of these complaints,” a customer service rep said in am email — then suspended both her and her partner as their accounts appeared to be duplicates.
Ultimately, as a “one-time courtesy gesture,” a customer service rep agreed to reactivate her account — but without the ability to use promotions.
Uber’s customer acquisition strategy: Throw money at potential customers.
Uber’s core ride-hailing business is famous for how liberally it hands out promotional codes.
Much of its growth is off the back of an aggressive referral scheme. Currently, if someone signs up as a rider using your referral code, they get a £10 voucher for a ride — and so do you. (It used to be even more.) Similar schemes are also in place on the driver side, incentivising drivers on the platform to persuade their friends and colleagues to sign up to drive in return for cash rewards.
One New Yorker, Blake Jareds, managed to rack up a truly staggering $50,000 in Uber credit by referring people to become users. His referral code became one of the top hits on Google when people searched for “Uber promotion code,” Mail Online reported in 2014, meaning 2,500 people took advantage of it.
But after he left a bad review for a driver, Uber removed his fortune of credits, telling him he had “taken advantage of the Uber referral program to earn Uber credit inappropriately.”
Uber declined to say how many vouchers have been issued to users since the London launch of UberEats. “The 30 minute guarantee promotion was designed to give our customers a reliable and fast service. The promotion helped us to get the average time from tap to table down to 28 minutes in London. Of course in the initial weeks things weren’t flawless, but the guarantee only came into effect for a very small proportion of orders,” UberEats general manager Alex Czarnecki said in an email.
But what about people who are rinsing UberEats for maximum vouchers? “We certainly don’t view someone complaining about a 31 minute order as gaming the system – they would still have been eligible,” Czarnecki said. “However we did have to cancel a number of codes that were being used fraudulently and not in the spirit of the promotion – for example if people shared their individual 30 minutes guarantee code with others who didn’t have late orders.”
Czarnecki blames the issues I and others experienced on unexpectedly high demand. “We were blown away by how popular UberEATS was even on day one. As a result we underestimated the number of courier partners we would need at that early stage. That’s why we saw some delays early on, but thanks to the thousands of courier partners we now have in London delivery times are now much quicker.”
This ride won’t go on forever.
At some point, this venture-capital funded frenzy is going to come to an end. “When the money train stops,” behaviour will have to change, Uber’s chief product officer Jeff Holden said at a Bloomberg conference in June 2016.
“When the tide goes out, you see who’s been swimming naked.”
Even now, Uber is offering smaller promotions than it used to. Its ride-hailing referral codes in the US used to be worth $45; now they’re just $20.
And in London, UberEats has now ended its lucrative promise it made in July to give users £30 off their next order if it takes longer than 30 minutes to arrive.
Now? “As per your city guidelines, if we verify that the delivery is more than 60 minutes, we will provide £10 to your account,” a customer service rep told me — a rather less enticing offer.
This ride can’t go on forever. Uber spends heavily to break into new markets; once there, there’s little incentive to keep throwing money away. I’m resigned to the fact that at some point, perhaps soon, my subsidised culinary adventure is going to come to an end.
But right now, I’m going to see just how long I can keep this going.
And now, here’s my UberEats order history:
Finally, for the curious, here’s exactly how much I managed to get, and how:
- On the day after the launch, June 17, I used a £25 promo code that a friend send me. This was an all-round disaster. The order was initially cancelled altogether, forcing me to rebook it; it was then extremely late. And so I complained.
- Uber’s help team promptly got back to me apologising, and sending me a £25 voucher to make up for my trouble, which I used on a big order from Chillango on June 20. No problems here.
- Then out of the blue, Uber’s team sent me another £20 voucher — this one to make up for the cancellation on the first order, apparently. So I bought myself another lunch on June 29. But there was a problem — they sent a chicken wrap instead of a falafel one. So, I complained.
- Then on July 1, I bought what is to date my only unsubsidised UberEats meal: A £7.70 wrap. (The previous complaint hadn’t processed yet.) No problems there!
- Next, on July 12, using the £20 voucher I was given following the June 29 screw-up, I bought another lunch — a halloumi wrap, a falafel pot, and various other sides.
- On August 19, I placed a bumper £31.25 order with Iskele Grill, almost entirely paid for with a £30 voucher that a friend sent me. However, the order was (slightly) wrong — I got sent a small falafel dish instead of the falafel pitta I had ordered. And so, once again, I complained. In response, they sent me a much smaller voucher than previous times: Just £10!
- Then on September 2, I placed a £30.50 order with The Athenian. Once again, it was paid for with a voucher, and I have literally no idea where it came from. God? But the food arrived 70 minutes late, and so I complained.
- This was, apparently, the final straw for UberEats. A customer service rep told me that “the frequency of these complaints is atypical of the standard UberEats user,” and that as a result the company would henceforth refuse to send me any more vouchers.
- However, I still had the £10 voucher left over, which I used on a pizza from The Pizza Bakers on September 3.
- And later that month, a friend used my referral code — granting me a £10 voucher, which I spent on lunch from The Athenian on September 19.
- I also submitted an appeal to UberEats over the decision to give me more vouchers. A customer service rep agreed that my order had definitely taken too long, and sent me another £10 voucher. I spent it on yet another wrap and chips from The Athenian on September 26. (I’m now a big fan of The Athenian.)
Total spent: Around £10, including the odd 50p here and there when the order I placed was slightly greater than the voucher’s value.
Total free food received: £180