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A grocery revolution is underway, with individual items available at your door in next to no time. What does it mean for supermarkets, our wallets, working conditions and the planet?
In a warehouse by Farringdon station, in central London, I am watching people burn through millions of pounds of investment in real time. Great big stacks of cash, all bet on the assumption that the future of grocery shopping will be app-enabled and delivered to our homes in less time than it takes to brew a cup of tea. Here, at the ultrafast grocery delivery startup Gorillas, workers push trolleys around a so-called micro-fulfilment centre, selecting food and toiletries and alcohol to be delivered by e-bicycling couriers in 10 minutes flat.
I am being shown around by the commercial director, Matthew Nobbs. “Imagine you go to a standard supermarket for breakfast,” says Nobbs, over the pounding dance music. “I’m going to have to go all the way to the bakery aisle for my croissants, and now I need some jam, so I have to go to the store cupboard aisle, and now I need some bacon, so I have to go back to the chiller. Or, I can just go on an app, and order what I need.” We pass the fresh produce. “Look at that for an apple!” says Nobbs, palming a Pink Lady with an evangelical flicker in his eye. (In fairness, its skin is so glossy it could be lacquered.)
The at-home ultra-rapid grocery-delivery revolution is the latest iteration of our mania for eliminating analogue inconveniences from our daily routines, via apps and an army of often low-paid workers. In scarcely a year, a wave of companies have landed in the UK. In addition to Gorillas, there is Zapp, Getir, Weezy, Jiffy, GoPuff and Yango Deli, while Deliveroo recently announced a partnership with Waitrose. (According to the upmarket supermarket, avocados are among its most-requested items for urgent home delivery – cue much eye-rolling at the prospect of emergency avocados.)
These startups envisage a world in which the wealthy move through the world seamlessly, unencumbered by anything as tedious as bags of shopping. Since launching in March this year, Gorillas has opened 25 sites in London alone, in addition to centres in Southampton, Manchester, Cambridge and Nottingham. “It’s been steep, aggressive growth,” says Nobbs.
He won’t disclose information about Gorillas’ target demographic, or user numbers. (Globally, the company has delivered more than 4.5m orders.) “They’re people who are interested in fresh products; they’re interested in local; they’re invested in quality,” he says vaguely. But looking around the shelves, which feature five types of oat milk, and slow-churned gelato, it’s not hard to guess. These are what we increasingly call the “time-poor”, meaning city-dwelling professionals with plenty of disposable income. Gorillas’ most commonly ordered products are bottled water, alcohol, bananas and – of course – avocados.
For the convenience, users pay a markup, plus a £1.80 delivery fee. Prices are considerably higher than a big supermarket. A tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream costs £5 from Gorillas, but £2.75 from Asda; a Pizza Express pizza is £5.50 from Gorillas; £3.75 from Asda. “Our pricing is great value,” says Nobbs, “but we don’t yet have the volumes a supermarket will.”
The founders of these apps are staking large sums in the hope their returns will be as lush and green as the flesh on their famed avocados. Already, Gorillas has achieved a $2.1bn (£1.6bn) valuation, despite the fact that it was founded only last year, has burned through hundreds of millions of pounds in investment and is not even close to turning a profit.
The overall experience of shopping from these apps can feel like meeting Tom Ripley in an Italian holiday resort: too good to be true, and therefore somewhat sinister. As they are mostly financed by venture capitalists with deep pockets, consumers currently enjoy unbelievable value. “It feels very reminiscent of that period of madness when Uber first arrived in the UK,” says Dr Jamie Woodcock, author of The Fight Against Platform Capitalism. “They spent vast amounts of money fighting to get new customers on board.”
Discount codes are ubiquitous; early adopters can flit between apps to make the most of generous signup incentives. “Getir did by far the most ridiculous offer I have ever seen,” says Matt Taylor, a 31-year-old product manager from London, dreamily. “Spend £16 and get £15 off. I bought a whole roast dinner for a quid.”
I order from a variety of apps, always using a discount code that gives at least 50% off. Gorillas’ arrives in 12 minutes and is handed to me by a smiling courier on an electric bike. Inside is a free tote and a banana. GoPuff takes 20 minutes, but its grapes are firm five days later, which, in an era of supply-chain delays, seems nothing short of miraculous. (The chicken I order, however, is so watery as to be inedible.) Zapp has a limited selection – many items are out of stock – but my groceries arrive in 15 minutes, with a free bag of sweets.
Testing these apps, I recognise within myself a quality I do not like: the realisation that while it’s nice not to have to walk to the shops in the rain, the next time I do I’ll likely feel put upon in a way I did not previously. My only comparable frame of reference is the one time I flew business class.
It’s a feeling Woodcock recognises. “I never got a cab before Uber. Whenever I did I regretted it, because it cost me an arm and a leg. Now people get Ubers all the time. It’s changed our relationship to transport. And I do think there is a chance this will change our relationship to shopping.”
Whether these apps will prove to be durable in the long term is unclear. Uber has yet to turn a net profit; Deliveroo’s much-hyped stock market debut in March was a flop. “Investors and the public mistakenly think that as soon as you create an app, profits will magically emerge,” says Prof Annabelle Gawer, director of the Centre of Digital Economy at the University of Surrey.
After all, the concept of grocery deliveries is not new. “People have done that for decades,” Gawer says. In the 20th century, butchers’ boys would deliver orders on bikes. In the 90s, at the height of the dotcom boom, the California firm Webvan pioneered a rapid grocery delivery service. It was briefly valued at $7.9bn, before going bust. “Platformising a bad business,” says Gawer, “does not make it a good business.”
The most successful platforms, such as Facebook or Airbnb, do not hold inventory. But most of the ultrafast grocery apps have so-called “dark shops” – warehouses in city centres – that are costly to run (Deliveroo and UberEats have partnerships with supermarkets and convenience stores). “When we talk about getting physical stuff and driving it to people,” says Gawer, “the industry you are disrupting is not the industry of the supermarket itself, but that of local delivery. But delivery has never been a profitable industry.”
She expects that there will be a consolidation of the market, as the bigger apps acquire their competitors – in November, Getir bought rival firm Weezy. Prices are likely to go up as the apps strive for profitability, in the same way that Ubers in London can now cost as much as black cabs. “They start dirt cheap,” says Gawer, “and give you something for nothing, to build an audience. Eventually it’s not sustainable. Something has to give. So they raise prices.” But Nobbs insists this is not Gorillas’ plan. “If we put our prices up,” he says, “customers won’t stick around for very long … it’s a cut-throat market, retail. If you don’t get it right, people will go elsewhere.”
For now, the venture capitalists have spread before city-dwellers a generous bounty. “They’re trying to dominate the market through capital,” Taylor says. “So I think, how can I abuse this as much as possible? I feel like Robin Hood.”
But what is the social and environmental cost of this 21st-century infatuation with convenience? The word “disruption” is often bandied around by these apps’ founders. “We are incredibly excited to continue our journey in disrupting the skyrocketing ultrafast grocery market,” said Kristof Van Beveren, CEO of Weezy, in November.
“Disruption can be good, and it can be bad,” says Gawer. “Some sectors have inefficiencies. Some firms don’t deliver a good service and get paid too much … if you are able to undercut your competitors, keep the quality of the product good and don’t transform your workers into slaves, bravo.”
The gig economy has long been criticised for exploitative labour practices. Workers for platforms such as Deliveroo and UberEats are self-employed, meaning that they do not qualify for pensions, sick leave, annual leave or parental leave. “These are shitty jobs,” says Gawer, “which are really non-jobs, because the person doesn’t even have the status of an employee.” When Waitrose announced its partnership with Deliveroo, it said that it had “lengthy discussions” with the platform and “received assurances about its self-employment model and its rider fees”. In practice, it is unclear what this means.
“I can probably take 60 or 70 litres on my back,” says Andy (not his real name), a 25-year-old Deliveroo rider from Northamptonshire, “because I’ve got strong shoulder blades. But it’s the damage you do to the bike. The back wheel buckles.” Andy frequently delivers groceries from the Co-op and Morrisons, but says that when working for Deliveroo, its algorithm does not take into account the weight of the items, meaning he sometimes has to reject orders that are too heavy. Last year, during lockdown, he made as little as £8 an hour, which is below the minimum wage; now things are busier, it’s between £10 and £12. “There are some days you can feel down about it,” says Andy, of the low pay.
Some of the new ultra-rapid apps distance themselves from these earlier offerings. “They’ve got a different proposition,” says Nobbs. In the UK, Gorillas’ workers are on full-time employment contracts and paid £11.50 an hour, which is above the “national living wage” (NLW). “It’s part of our founder’s vision that everyone should be employed,” says Nobbs. When I accost the Gorillas rider dropping off my delivery, he seems genuinely happy to work for the company. “It’s the best courier job I’ve had,” he says.
The fact that some, if not all, of these platforms avoid the worst practices of gig economy apps – Getir says it has created 3,000 full-time employee positions in the UK, paying the NLW; it also offers riders pension contributions and paid leave, as does Jiffy – is significant. “If you had said to me five years ago,” says Woodcock, “that new companies wouldn’t be using self-employed workers, that would have felt like a big victory. Some of the arguments about the state of the gig economy have clearly gotten through, and people are realising that the model of forcing people to be self-employed doesn’t work.”
But Gorillas has been accused of union busting in Germany, where the company is headquartered. “All of these platforms are incredibly anti-union,” says Woodcock. When I ask Nobbs whether he would be happy for Gorillas workers to form a union, he declines to answer; later, a spokesperson emails that: “It has always been in our core values to create a positive environment for our crew so we will always examine all the options to ensure we offer the best working conditions possible.” Gorillas also subcontracts out to another courier company when it is busy or setting up new facilities. It is unclear whether these subcontracted workers are employees with benefits, or self-employed. (When asked about this, Nobbs declined to comment.)
Then there’s the wider social impact of these apps. Some fear they will drive corner shops out of business, although Chris Noice, of the Association of Convenience Stores, is bullish. “We don’t see them as a fundamental threat,” he says, pointing out that 85% of corner shops are in non-urban areas these apps don’t serve. “People on their way home will still stop at shops to pick up what they need.”
There is, too, an environmental cost. While most of the grocery apps use e-mopeds or e-bicycles, a more sustainable method of food shopping would be to walk to the shops. “Only about 37% of our electricity currently comes from renewables,” says Dr Julian Allen, a transport expert at the University of Westminster. “And even if it all did, we would still want to reduce our energy demands.” He points out that riders will be creating congestion, and there will be safety implications. “Many will be under pressure to make fast deliveries,” Allen says, “on vehicles they are not used to using.” On Twitter, angry people tag in the apps, complaining about near-misses with pedestrians.
Leaving the micro-fulfilment centre, I am passed by a bus wrapped in a Gorillas decal. At the tube station, I walk past an advert announcing a Gorillas-Tesco partnership. I drink my complimentary smoothie – refreshing, fridge-cold – and contemplate a future in which those who can afford it never have to browse a supermarket aisle again. Many investors have bet that the ease and convenience of these apps will get us hooked on ultrafast grocery deliveries like lab rats on sugar water. Having tried them, I’m sure they’re right. The grocery revolution is coming, and we may be powerless to resist.