Shops with no windows and no clients inside are springing up in European cities, introducing a new idea of convenience that comes with a set of challenges for residents and municipalities alike.
Stashes of food and drinks brought here from warehouses outside the city don’t stay on shelves for long; just the time it takes riders to pick up them, load them onto their bikes and bring them to clients as quickly as possible.
These so-called ‘dark stores’ are the latest evolution of the online shopping universe that’s already upending buying habits the world over. The idea offers simplicity to busy lives: pick your groceries on the internet and receive them within 15 minutes of your order, or even less.
No more driving or cycling to the grocery store, no more getting lost in the cornflakes aisle, no more lines at the cashier. No more endless waiting for the grocery shop truck to eventually show up at your doorstep. In short, more time for yourself.
Companies like Gorillas and Zapp promise to bring high-quality food at affordable prices with a simple click. They’re also taking neighbourhoods by storm.
Residents complain of noise and disturbances in areas where dark stores temporarily set up their operations, usually in leased spaces that serve to briefly stock goods just before they’re delivered all over town.
From France to the Netherlands, cities are just starting to grapple with these issues and mulling over compromise solutions to address locals’ complaints without hindering business growth.
Earlier this year, Amsterdam was one of the first to act by putting a hold on dark stores’ operations. Eurocities talked to Hanneke Enderveen, an Amsterdam Policy Advisor for Urban Planning, to get a view from the Dutch city.
Below the interview, you can find Gorillas’ and Zapp’s replies to Amsterdam’s temporary decision. Both companies are operating in the city.
Why did Amsterdam decide to take action on the so-called ‘dark stores’?
“Since the spring of last year, dark stores have been appearing and expanding quite rapidly in Amsterdam, with many popping up over a very short period. As is the case for other new business models, we noticed that our policies lagged behind on this issue. Meanwhile, we’ve received many complaints from our citizens about problems in the public space. So we decided we needed to take a moment and think about what this development means for the city, and how we could make sure that when a dark store appears, there are no troublesome consequences for the public.”
Because of their business model, dark stores need to be close to their customers, so many of them are located in residential areas, but our streets are not necessarily equipped to handle them. There’s usually a lot of traffic around the dark stores, either due to trucks, and couriers’ bicycles and scooters that deliver food to customers. Dark stores tend to be small in Amsterdam, so they can’t store many products at once and have to be supplied frequently. Many people living near dark stores are complaining and the municipality is responsible for good spatial planning and ensuring that our residents have a good place to live.
What did residents mainly complain about? Was it the hours, the logistics, or something else?
“We received complaints from people living next to or above these dark stores, mostly about noise in the public space. This noise comes from couriers waiting outside for their deliveries. Carts used to take goods out of the delivery trucks and roll them into the dark stores are also very noisy. And then you have delivery bikes or scooters parked on the footpath, so whenever there isn’t a lot of space on the sidewalk, they tend to be in the way. This is causing problems in residential areas, where many dark stores are located. On the other hand, dark stores whose operations are located in businesses districts tend fit better into our city.”
When it comes to delivery couriers, what are residents complaining about?
“Many dark stores tend to be rather small so delivery couriers have to wait for goods outside, and while they wait they talk to each other, sometimes they play music, they laugh, they shout. This is not necessarily bad, but if this continues at all hours of the day, it might become annoying. We’ve noticed that dark stores equipped with a couriers’ waiting area inside – with an indoor place where workers can wait for their deliveries – make a big difference and help a lot.”
What about the hours? When are these operations taking place?
“Some of them take place all through the night. Some people need groceries late at night, so in some locations, operations happen around the clock.”
When did the municipality decide to step in and what measures did you come up with?
“Since last January, the Amsterdam City Council decided to stop all new dark stores from expanding. We have a year to come up with rules and regulations and to decide where we would want these stores to be located and where they shouldn’t be.”
So basically, there’s no decision yet.
“We’ve made a decision to pause all expansion. From 27 January, no new dark stores are allowed to open for the following year. The ones that are already here are not affected by this decision, and we will speak to them about managing the disturbances. We saw dark stores grow very quickly in the last year, so we want to pause their expansion in order to make decisions instead of allowing them to grow and then be confronted with – I don’t know – 50, 60, 70 stores by the time we come up with a new policy.”
In the meantime, are existing dark stores trying to contain their noise level? Did they realise that maybe some changes need to be made on their part?
“They told us that they will manage their locations and that they are aware of some of the disturbances and complaints, so they’ll work on that. It’s just that in some locations, the city doesn’t see enough changes or they aren’t fast enough. So it’s a work-in-progress.”
When do you expect to make any decisions?
“We have a year, although we don’t plan to take so long because it’s best for everybody to have new rules out as fast as we can.”
What considerations will go into devising these new rules? What are the different aspects that will be important to address in your new legislation?
“As a city, we’re not against dark stores; we see that some or many of our residents use them. So we want to facilitate this new economic development, but our responsibility is to also make sure that any new development – whether economic or otherwise – fits into our city and what we have already. Spatial planning, for instance, is very important. We also have to take into consideration traffic safety. You have those large delivery trucks and you have couriers, mostly on bikes, who need to be very fast in order to deliver goods on time, so we have to think about people’s safety in the public space. And there are some other considerations; it’s a whole package that we need to discuss and think about.”
Is the city concerned about existing grocery stores that may be driven out of business by dark stores?
“That’s a concern; there are concerns that, as people tend to order more stuff online, they will visit local stores less. It’s something we think about and discuss.”
Gorillas’s response to Amsterdam’s temporary stop to its dark store’s operations:
“We have proactively approached all municipalities where we are present to discuss our activities and how we can work together. We will continue to be constructive and are happy to engage with municipalities on how to do better and to make these policies together.”
Zapp’s response to Amsterdam’s temporary stop to its dark store’s operations:
“Since launching in the Netherlands last year, the reception we have received has been overwhelmingly positive. Customers tell us they value having a new local amenity and the ability to order everyday and essential items online, 24/7, delivered from our Zappstores by our all-electric fleet of employed riders.
“As a relatively new company, we always strive to take a cooperative and responsible approach to how we operate – from working with our neighbours, job creation and supporting local producers, to sustainability – and comply with all local laws and regulations.
“The zoning system already provides for activities that are similar to ours, and we have worked hard to fit within the existing spatial plan. We are in conversations with the municipalities in Amsterdam and Rotterdam on this matter as we believe that a continuous dialogue is the best way forward for our customers, our neighbours and our employees. In the meantime, we continue serving Amsterdam and Rotterdam from our existing Zappstores, and will continue to review options for bringing daily essentials to new customers in both cities.”