Food e-commerce has long remained a limited phenomenon, which only changed noticeably during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did more consumers take advantage of the options offered online, but it also prompted the launch of many food delivery start-ups worldwide.
Quick commerce, in particular, offering grocery deliveries within twenty minutes or less, attracted significant sums of venture capital, alongside criticism from urban administrations and communities for the nuisances caused. Indeed, to offer instant grocery deliveries, quick commerce companies rely on a tight-knit network of small, store-like warehouses, called ‘dark stores,’ and a readily available vehicle fleet and staff. Thorough scientific analysis is lacking.
Paris researchers studied Paris’s geographical dimensions and transportation activities to objectify and quantify the nuisances generated by quick commerce (and compared with London and NYC). Using a press review, expert interviews, field observations, and cartography, we detail a supply chain consisting of various facility types; demonstrate the transportation intensity of dark stores mainly composed of electric two-wheelers; problematize the public space consumed by the vehicles in particular; and contrast the ultimately limited network of dark stores relative to traditional food retail.
Network of dark stores
Quick commerce promises instant delivery of otherwise everyday grocery items to urban homes. Its network of ‘dark stores’ introduces new types of urban facilities, changing the relationship between commercial and logistics spaces in dense areas of major cities. It also creates new kinds of transportation flows. These flows can be intense, especially at certain times of the day and in specific locations.
The researchers have demonstrated that dark stores represent only a small share of food consumption and the number of food-selling facilities in Paris. After all, there are less than 100 facilities within Paris. Yet, each dark store is a high generator of vehicle movements, i.e., 150 to 300 per dark store per day. Quick commerce is indeed transportation-intensive.
The findings suggest a first conclusion regarding policy and planning: there is an overreaction from urban administrations relating to dark stores. This overreaction mainly comes from the political side, as opposed to the technical and practice side.
The research also suggests that there are more relevant local policies regarding dark stores. Beyond the legal wrangling over the status of dark stores or the relevancy of consumer behaviors, it would seem more appropriate for urban administrations to focus on the specific impacts of transportation, such as noise and congestion from delivery vehicles serving dark stores. This is a matter of traffic regulations and curbside management.
Adding to the road safety issue are delivery driver accidents, which seem to be an important problem, as demonstrated by previous studies on instant food delivery in the City of Paris. When making instant deliveries, over a quarter of all moped and bicycle drivers have had severe accidents in the last year.
Better data on quick commerce activities are necessary to consider these new transportation and traffic challenges in urban policies. Reliable metrics enable diagnoses to be made, enabling appropriate policies to be adopted. Acquiring regularly updated data on new urban logistics services, especially fast-changing ones such as quick commerce, provides urban administrations with instruments to improve traffic management and infrastructure planning. It also allows to evaluate the effects of policies. Data make it possible to carry out cost-benefit analyses of public policies and to provide information to quick commerce companies so that they can situate themselves about average indicators for the sector.
These findings led to the posing of three conclusions, namely an observation that responses to quick commerce from urban administrations can be seen as an overreaction, a suggestion for planning and policy to focus on traffic regulations, curb management, and road safety, and the recommendation that continuous urban logistics data collection be made a policy priority. Other concerns related to quick commerce have been raised, such as the working conditions of instant delivery workers, consumers’ health in the on-demand economy, and the net transportation impact of online shopping, providing promising avenues for future research.
Source: Buldeo Rai, H., Mariquivoi, J., Schorung, M., & Dablanc, L. (2023). Dark stores in the City of Light: Geographical and transportation impacts of ‘quick commerce’ in Paris. Research in Transportation Economics, 100, 101333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.retrec.2023.101333