'Dark stores'. Ultra-fast grocery delivery has entered a new phrase in to our vocabulary. These miniature warehouses have sprung up in cities across Europe since the start of the pandemic. They are occupied by workers known as 'pickers', who prepare groceries for the riders to deliver to homes. Due to the demands for speed in ultra-fast delivery, they are often located in dense residential neighbourhoods so as to be as close as possible to customers, and are increasingly replacing the cornershop, in what is a symbol of the economic changes which covid-19 has brought about.
Apart from the demise of the cornershop, what's the problem? The speed at which dark stores have grown has caught government off-guard, meaning it is an unregulated development. These workplaces are open until late at night and bring a crowd of riders with bikes and motorcycles with them going in and out and waiting for deliveries on the side-walk, as platforms refuse to spend cash on proper places for their riders to wait. They can be a noisy and obstructive presence in residential neighbourhoods which are used to peace and quiet.
Dark stores aren't great places to be for the 'pickers' who occupy them as well, and not just because of the low-pay. GEP spoke to Gorillas Workers' Collective rider Zeynep Karlıdağ last year about their wild cat strikes, and she told us that the conditions in the dark stores she operated out of were extremely poor.
"I don’t know the other companies warehouses but I can say for Gorillas that these warehouses are very small," she said. "We don’t have proper heaters in winter and during the summer we don’t have any proper air conditioner. They are small, with a lot of riders, pickers and warehouse managers inside, and we don’t fit. We have to wear these masks, and it is not easy to breath."
There are signs that dark stores are starting to attract the attention of lawmakers. In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the local council has introduced a one-year freeze on any new dark stores, with four other Dutch cities looking to introduce restrictions on where dark stores can be established. That has brought about the ire of Berlin-based grocery delivery firm Flink, which said this week that they were "evaluating all options" in how to respond to this regulatory offensive "including legal action". They added that the Amsterdam and Rotterdam ban did not "meet the conditions of non-discrimination, necessity, and proportionality, in our opinion".
A new report by the Parisian Urban Planning Workshop has argued that the legality of the French capital's 60 dark stores is questionable. A "storage function" is "prohibited in residential buildings" and the "transformation into a warehouse of existing premises on the ground floor facing the street is prohibited", the report states, adding that the Parisian local authority is now much less likely to permit new dark stores from opening.
Urban planning regulators are finally catching up with ultra-fast grocery delivery, and it's unlikely that the latter will be the winner, at least not in the long-term. For the likes of Gorillas, Flink, Zapp and Getir, defeat will mean higher costs and slower delivery times.
Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator