Is app-based food delivery profitable? The Gig Economy Project recently received access to a paper published last year which gives us some insight into this question.
"Economic profitability of last-mile food delivery services: Lessons from Barcelona" is authored by five academics at the Open University of Catalonia. The paper uses real-life data from Just Eat, Deliveroo and Glovo in Barcelona to assess the unit economics of these companies.
What it finds is that a minimum of 8,000 deliveries are needed to "overcome operating expenses". Almost 19,000 are needed to "keep the company scaling up and expanding to other markets".
"Although these numbers seem reasonable, it is obvious that this type of service cannot operate in any city," the paper finds. "A minimum city size is required to ensure such a large amount of operations."
Key to the ability to grow organically (i.e. without the injection of finance capital) is for the platforms to take a high-percentage of the restaurant fee. For example, a drop in the restaurant fee from 30% to 20% per delivery would mean a doubling of orders would be necessary for profitability.
What about labour costs? The paper assumes a gig economy model where riders are paid per-delivery and not for waiting times, but if riders were to be employees the researchers estimate that profitability is reduced "by up to 30%".
"This explains why these companies are reluctant to make changes to their riders’ working conditions," the report finds.
Thus, the economics of food delivery is highly variable depending on factors that are central to the public debate about the social value of food delivery platforms.
"Their ability to become profitable strongly depends on the volume of orders they can capture, the conditions imposed on restaurants, the precariousness of riders, and the conditions of the environment in which they operate: our cities," the report concludes.
In other words, the economics of food delivery is to a large extent about politics. The question for politicians is: do you want to sacrifice the viability of restaurants and the rights of workers on the altar of platform profitability, and if not, are you willing to help build a not-for-profit alternative?
Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator