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Regulating dark stores

"Dark stores" is a stupid name. It refers to a new business model of rapid grocery deliveries (e.g. you can order some vegatables and milk and have it delivered in 10 minutes), and here in the Netherlands we see a lot of these shops popping up in towns with some fast-cycling bicycle couriers zooming around ("Gorillas" and "Getir" are the main brands we see around here).

The stupid name "dark stores" comes from an analogy with "dark kitchens", another recent invention: home takeaway food deliveries, where you might think you're ordering from "Wong's Palace", "Turkish Delight", or some other local restaurant with a cook who specialises in one particular cuisine - but in reality the food is prepared in some anonymous industrial-estate kitchen which churns out lots of different food under multiple assumed names. The yucky side of dark kitchens, even if they're done "well", is the dishonesty: using assumed names to give an aura of authenticity, and presumably stealing business from the genuine local restaurants who have been specialising in their own cuisines for years.

--- However, "dark stores" aren't dishonest at all. Assuming the business is done "well", then it's exactly the same as the established supermarket home-delivery services: groceries, sent out by couriers, but with a different approach to delivery planning and response times.

But these shops are coming in for criticism in the local press, and there's political discussion about what to do about them. It's often not quite clear what the complaint is, but it certainly includes:

  • Dangerous speed-cycling making pedestrian/cycling safety worse
  • Noise nuisance. From what...? Lots of cycle couriers and grocery deliveries, through into the evening, I think. It's not clear to me what makes this different from (a) home take-away deliveries (here in Leiden we see many many bicycle meal deliveries from Thuisbezorgt etc (the Dutch Justeat) on the streets) or (b) ordinary supermarket deliveries (we also see lots of supermarket vans driving around, daytime and evening).
  • Town-centre locations - even though these services are simple deliveries, they set up lots of little shops in the middle of town, i.e. locations that might annoy locals. They do this because you can't really achieve "10-minute delivery" promises without setting up lots of small depots everywhere.

From my perspective, I'm a little bit baffled about why this business model is the new bete noir for some local politics. They're pretty much entirely using cycle couriers here (not mopeds or vans), so it seems very low-impact, no fumes or engine noise. But I think all of those factors I've listed combine to make them a focus of irritation. Perhaps also there's a hint of the usual irritation when new and unexpected things happen in one's neighbourhood.

What should be done? Well:

  1. If these businesses shouldn't be setting up shops in the town centre or other neighbourhoods - they shouldn't have been giving licences to operate by the local council. I'm guessing that the local "zoning" and business regulations weren't designed with this business model in mind, so perhaps right now there's no way for town councils to regulate whether or not they should be in your high street. I'd imagine that an update to the zoning/regulations is needed, to make clear where they should put their depots. Amsterdam city council has "paused" any new locations opening up, and will spend this year deciding how to regulate them. Leiden's looking at it too, and other cities.
  2. The speed-demon couriers - yes, I'd say that's a genuine issue, because when a business offers guaranteed 10-minute delivery etc, there's no way for that to be achieved without strongly incentivising your couriers to go fast, take cheeky shortcuts, and make everyone else feel a little less safe. The solution, then, isn't to punish the couriers, but perhaps to regulate the market so that no-one is allowed to guarantee 10-minute delivery times, nor to incentivise their staff for anything shorter than 30-minute times? Although it might seem an odd thing to regulate, setting 30 minutes as the quickest guarantee doesn't seem unreasonable to me. It might not entirely fix the speed-demons but it takes away what is obviously a very big incentive.
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