April 15, 2020 / 12:11 PM / 4 months ago

Uber targets older Americans with phone-based food ordering during coronavirus crisis

(Reuters) - Uber Technologies Inc on Wednesday said customers in New York City and the Miami area could now order restaurant meal deliveries over the phone, instead of through its app, as it aims to expand its service to older Americans.

FILE PHOTO: An Uber Eats bicyclist makes a delivery during the coronavirus outbreak, in the U.S. Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, U.S. April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Users can dial a toll-free number and talk to an agent to discuss menu options, receive upfront pricing information and complete payment. Uber said it planned to expand the service to more cities nationwide in the coming weeks.

The announcement comes at a time when roughly 90% of the U.S. population is under orders to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many Americans now rely on front-line workers delivering groceries, food and household items to their doorstep.

It also comes as demand for Uber’s ride-hailing service, the unit contributing the bulk of the company’s revenue, has ground to a halt in most U.S. cities since the coronavirus outbreak.

Prior to the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, Uber earlier this year launched a phone-booking service for its ride-hailing business in Arizona and Florida.

An Uber spokesman said the company at the time conducted focus group studies showing that older adults struggled to use technology despite having a need for Uber and transportation - lessons it now seeks to extend to its food delivery business.

While taxi companies and restaurants for years have allowed customers to book a cab or order a food delivery over the phone, app-based services relying on cheaper independent contract workers have been able to expand thanks to lower costs and the convenience of online booking.

But food delivery companies like Uber Eats, GrubHub Inc, DoorDash Inc and Postmates Inc have faced criticism over the high fees they take from independent restaurants, often eating up already-thin profit margins.

Uber said its Eats food delivery unit has seen growing demand during the coronavirus outbreak, with the number of delivery drivers signing up for the service doubling in mid-March. The company declined to provide details on order numbers or drivers.

Uber Eats has been a drag on Uber’s bottom line as spending on discounts and promotions continue to outpace the segment’s revenue growth.

Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi on March 19 said the company had plenty of cash on hand to tide during it over the coronavirus crisis.

Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler

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