Even before a customer taps the check-out button, the process has begun with a pre-designated delivery executive on standby. Once that button is clicked, a “picker” inside the “dark store” receives an alert on a smartphone app. The app guides the picker, who has a bucket in hand, through a maze of shelves. The items selected are scanned, billed and packed by a two-member team.
All of this takes just two minutes, leaving around eight minutes for the delivery executive to reach the customer’s doorstep. Welcome to the world of q-commerce, the 10-minute shopping experience that has taken the online grocery service segment by storm.
According to internet consultancy firm RedSeer, even in a conservative scenario, the q-commerce segment is expected to grow to $3.1 billion in gross merchandise value by 2025, 10 times the $300 million clocked in 2021. Over 1,000 dark stores have mushroomed across the country in the last six months alone.
Following Blinkit (earlier known as Grofers), which started the 10-minute trend in India last year, over half a dozen players, both new to the space and old, have entered the fast-moving segment. These include Zepto, Swiggy Instamart, Bigbasket’s BBNow, Reliance-backed Dunzo and Ola Dash.
Nine days ago, LocalCircles, a community-based online platform, released the results of a survey of 30,000 participants across 272 districts, which found that one in four households that buy groceries online use q-commerce, or quick-commerce — and 71 per cent are using them to purchase last-minute essentials or indulgence foods.
The Indian Express visited multiple dark stores in the National Capital Region (NCR) and spoke with store managers and delivery executives to find that a smaller, more localised warehouse isn’t the only factor that drives the 10-minute promise.
The logistical blueprint has been designed keeping in mind several routes through which efficiency can be derived using technology.
“Several factors play a role in deciding where to open a dark store. In addition to the usual aspects, such as an addressable market (how many households in the locality are likely to order), questions about local weather patterns affecting the delivery process, road and traffic conditions being an impediment, location intelligence, etc., are also considered,” a top industry executive said.
A dark store will typically keep a focused set of 1,500-2,000 stock keeping units (SKUs), compared with over 1 lakh SKUs of a large-format online grocer. Based on order patterns, these franchisee-run stores are guided by the platform to stock up items.
Each store serves an area within a radius of 2-3 km and is customised to cater to the locality it serves with the most high-frequency items, such as bread, eggs and milk, stocked in the front. Impulse-driven categories, such as chips, chocolates and namkeen, are stored alongside, whereas staple items such as atta, rice, etc., are stored together.
The deadline is a function of factors, such as number of items ordered, weight of items ordered, order backlog at a given facility, distance between delivery location and the dark store, and the availability of delivery executives.
“From packing to dispatching, that entire process happens in about 58 seconds today, on an average,” Zepto CEO and co-founder Aadit Palicha told The Indian Express.
“Within the partner hubs (dark stores), we have automated SKU verification, how the workforce within those hubs functions. We have also built a system to pre-slot a delivery rider even before an order is placed so that we don’t have any delay in assigning the order. If you have ordered on a food delivery platform, you would have noticed that there is a bit of a delay between you placing the order and a delivery rider being assigned to it,” Palicha said.
Compared with large-format online grocers that deploy light commercial vehicles and service a higher number of orders at once in a locality, q-commerce platforms deploy delivery workers on a two-wheeler, thereby limiting the size of order up to a maximum of 50 kg.
While those working inside the dark store are hired and managed by the franchisee, delivery workers are usually managed by the platform itself either by hiring on its own or through a logistics service provider.
For 36-year old Kundan Kumar, a manager at a Ghaziabad-located dark store operated by Softbank-backed Blinkit, a typical day at the micro-warehouse for groceries starts around 5 am. He, along with six other store operators, in their early 20s, start by stocking a day’s worth of items received from Dasna city, around 12 km away. They prepare for a deluge of small-ticket grocery orders that the store will fulfil between 6 am and 11 pm.
But the 10-minute shopping solution has also raised a few question marks.
At Kundan’s facility, The Indian Express saw around 70-80 delivery workers outside the store at peak hours. At another Blinkit facility in East Delhi, around 30-40 delivery workers were waiting for orders. For these delivery executives, who get paid “Rs 40-50 per delivery”, it’s a “race against time”.
Companies say they do not provide incentives to delivery workers to fulfil the order within the promised time. But several workers told The Indian Express that they go to extreme lengths to keep the 10-minute promise.
“If we drive while following all traffic rules, it will be very difficult for us workers to deliver orders within a short span of 10 minutes. So we do everything we can to deliver orders quickly. Often, that means driving too fast or at times on the footpath too,” Sonu Pal, a Delhi-based delivery executive, said.
Responding to an email with queries on safety issues in last-mile servicing, a Blinkit spokesperson said: “Our platform works with 400+ stores across India. We encourage our store partners to change the layout based on ordering patterns in their communities. Also, our network design ensures stores are located within 2 km of the customer. With this density of stores, our partners don’t need to break any traffic rules to deliver orders under 10 minutes and we don’t incentivise them on speed of delivery at all.”