• December 1, 2015
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Moving and Shaking

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Just in time for the holiday season, we've got a story about mischievous imps delivering packages to houses, with a twist. A recent news report revealed that drug dealers have joined the mobile age, using smartphone apps to connect with their clientele. Merry Xmas!

People are calling it "Uber for junkies" and similar things, because it's easier to slap a recognizable name onto a trend than to make an apt comparison; whether surge pricing rises to the level of a felony is not for me to decide. This shocking new development is neither shocking nor new, really—the modern image of the local dealer has included a bicycle or other vehicle for years, and they've been using mobile phones since they became affordable to regular consumers. Before that, it was pagers. The major change here is the use of apps, and the fact that the story just hit the newspapers likely means this has been the case for six months to a year, in my estimation.

Really, though, this move makes a fair bit of sense. The main drug mentioned in the story I saw was heroin, which is not typically associated with people who have a lot of get-up-and-go. As a couch potato myself, I understand the allure of getting things delivered, and that desire must be a lot stronger when you're on the nod. Add to that the lack of street exposure, making the transaction much safer (as far as getting arrested is concerned), and you've got a winning combo.

There are plenty of new reasons for you to worry about your kids' digital addiction turning into an actual addiction. Other illicit substances and services are available this way, too. Heroin isn't the only drug available for home delivery—I'm sure marijuana was responsible for the rise of drug apps in the first place, since pot smokers love building everything from bongs to hydroponic gardens to improve their experience. And our old friends the pimps and prostitutes (see June 2005's column, "It's Hard Out Here for a Manager") have moved the oldest profession to the newest devices, if my brief Google research is any indication.

I'm not going to discuss the legal status of any of these things, because I already get into enough arguments that can't be easily resolved. What I'm wondering is, how does the average person think this affects them? One of the biggest complaints about street-level drug trade (and prostitution, for that matter) is the negative quality-of-life impact on the community where it's happening. Moving into the digital realm cleans up the streets at least a little bit. On the other hand, removing the visibility and risk makes it easier for these activities to succeed and grow. The other harmful effects may deepen, but they become less readily apparent, and easier to ignore. It's a rare case where customer experience is less important than the experiences of non-customers.

It appears the biggest obstacle to truly explosive growth in the app-enabled drug trade is the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which has been interpreted to allow wiretapping of Internet and smartphone traffic, including app transactions. In turn, the biggest obstacle to that having any broad effect is apathy. Remember what I just said about making crimes easier to ignore by taking them off the streets? This is likely to become a case of "out of sight, out of mind." The police, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms are more interested in attacking the top of the distribution chain, so we'll probably only hear about them busting up dealer apps when it's a slow news cycle.

At any rate, I'm pretty sure the iPhone marketing team did not have this in mind when they coined the phrase "There's an app for that."  

Marshall Lager has what you need, and Third Idea Consulting is always holding when you need a fix. Make a deal at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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