“Dark supermarkets” offer groceries delivered to your door in minutes. But such convenience comes at a price – Stephen Jardine

They weren’t very fancy, but they were on your doorstep and seemed open 24/7.

Then came American-style supermarkets and as the use of automobiles increased, the market for corner shops declined. We shopped bigger but less frequently, leaving convenience stores with a dwindling market share.

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A pandemic later, we are in a very different place. We buy clothes online, supermarkets deliver to your home and dinner comes on a bike from your favorite restaurant or takeaway. Extreme convenience is how we live our lives now, but can it ever go too far?

In London, “dark supermarkets” are on the rise and coming our way. They have bought up empty units where local shops have gone out of business, typically operating behind blacked-out windows and not open to the public. Instead, the stores act as convenience hubs, where last-minute purchases are shipped to local addresses via bike or moped delivery.

At some, staff are expected to assemble the order in 90 seconds, with a goal of having it out the door, down the street, and at a customer’s home in 10 minutes.

There are currently 200 of these stores, operated by brands such as Getir, Jiffy and Zapp, but market research firm Interact Analysis has forecast that there could be as many as 1,500 in the next few years.

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Don’t feel like doing your shopping? Dark supermarkets aim to deliver to your door in minutes (Image: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Common purchases include chocolate, crisps and alcohol, but while some have a £10 minimum order, others will deliver a single apple if you’re willing to pay the £1.99 delivery fee.

The companies market themselves as modern convenience stores that provide the essentials for dinner or help struggling parents who bathe their children but are out of diapers. They also point out that they sell some medications like acetaminophen if you feel too sick to leave your doorstep.

But at what price? Paying someone to deliver chips and wine to the door during a livelihood crisis because you don’t feel like getting off the sofa and going to the shops has a Marie Antoinette touch to it. And that’s before we talk about the national obesity situation.

There are also problems around the infrastructure. Amsterdam is currently on a dark shop opening freeze while city councilors draw up plans for rules for fast delivery couriers. Local residents have complained of disruptions caused by reckless cycling to meet deadlines and delivery bikes littering sidewalks.

The blacked out windows and constant courier traffic also don’t make for a welcoming high street environment for shoppers or other businesses trying to establish a business.

All of this may be academic. Few, if any, of these dark trade marks seem to be making any money right now. Like Uber and Deliveroo, they’re simply trying to last the longest based on deepest pockets while all their competitors go out of business.

But before that happens, you might see them on a street near you, so local authorities would do well to start thinking now about the planning implications and the broader issues surrounding this new wave of retail delivery.

Convenience is great, but sometimes it comes at a price.

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