GURGAON: In a tin shed building full of restless but invisible customers, data, AI and a group of pickers are locked in a frenetic dance choreographed to the thinnest limit of human patience that the delivery ecosystem has set as its new benchmark — to reach homes in 10 minutes.
Items get picked up and packed in the blink of an eye in this new-age version of the kirana store, called a “dark store” as it only serves online customers. There’s sound method to this breathless pace. From coded shelves — designed so that items ordered most are within the fastest reach — an order for washing powder, instant coffee, floor cleaner, digestive biscuits, cola, yogurt, milk and a chocolate bar lands at the billing counter in under a minute. Milk and vegetables, most often ordered, are closest to checkout. Through the IPL season, cola and chips were bunched together on shelves.
Except for the soft rush of footsteps of pickers gliding around the aisles, this dark store is a quiet place. Workers rarely talk. There’s no time, or need, to because the devices are doing all the talking on algo-verse — the computers where the orders land to the handheld devices that guide pickers to the exact item and back to the computers for simultaneous billing. Packing takes around 20 seconds, which is the window for the rider — who receives a notification — to come into the store and pick it up. The order is on its way in around two minutes from the time it lands at the store.
“For customers with a high predictability score, we receive the orders while a payment is being made on the app. We just follow the system’s prompts. If you use your brain or deflect, you won’t meet the time target,” says a 40-year-old employee of the store (requesting anonymity), formerly a warehouse manager in Dubai who returned to India during the lockdown.
On the day this correspondent visited the store, located in an old Gurgaon neighborhood and run by an e-commerce startup, it had delivered around 300 orders by noon, of the average 1,000 it claims to do a day. Around 40% of those had missed the 10-minute timeline, a stiff target to meet through the Monday morning traffic maze.
But traffic, or pausing to think, aren’t the only problems of this ecosystem, whose driving force, critics say, is an overpromise.
What’s the big rush?
There’s big cash flowing into quick commerce, which isn’t necessarily a commitment to deliver in 10 minutes. It could also be 20 or 30 minutes or a little more, which too is quick.
In January this year, Swiggy raised fresh funding of $700 million (Rs 5,225 crore) to grow its food delivery platform and also quick commerce grocery service Instamart. Zomato has already pumped $100 million into Blinkit (formerly Grofers). Google-backed Dunzo has tied up with Reliance and has raised $200 million. Tata’s BigBasket, with its BB Now, has also entered the fray with the promise of delivering groceries in the time frame of 10 to 20 minutes.
“Quick commerce is growing exponentially across the globe. The only way to survive is to lead from the front. Thus, we are venturing into this space, initially on a pilot basis,” said Rinshul Chandra, vice-president (product) at Zomato. The leading aggregator also recently launched a pilot run for delivering food within 10 minutes in its home turf, Gurgaon. But the trial ran into logistical problems.
Dunzo Daily, which has been in expansion mode, launched in Gurgaon last month, promising deliveries in 19 minutes. “Dunzo Daily has expanded to five cities since January 2022. We were in Bangalore by 2021 and have since January 2022 expanded operations to Pune, Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi-NCR and Hyderabad,” said its co-founder and CEO Kabeer Biswas.
For Biswas, the 10-minute rush is “unnecessary and not supported by evidence”. “We do deliveries under 10 minutes as well but in areas that we deliver in 19 minutes, we haven’t seen any retention issues. Through data analysis and mapping of consumer sentiments, we have realised speed is not a make or break point for the customer. Factors like inventory management, stocking up of right units, especially the perishable ones, based on demand prediction, a wide range and quality of products determine the overall feasibility of quick commerce,” Biswas added.
The e-commerce delivery space became a crowded one during the pandemic with orders from home shooting up as people isolated and worked from home. Companies that have aggressively invested in scaling up now need a new hook to retain customers as our lives head for a return to normalcy, an industry watcher told TOI. The bottom line is that it’s a market that is projected to grow 15 times by 2025, and a race for a share of it is inevitable.
“So, e-commerce companies started projecting the message that customers will take more time to get groceries from the stores inside their condominiums than those delivered by them,” said Mayank Jain, marketing and content head at FinBox, a B2B fintech company. A senior executive at a leading grocery delivery startup agreed. “The change we had been trying to bring about for years came overnight (as the lockdown kicked in). We had all our slots full and a long waitlist. This was the only business that was hugely profitable. So, companies reworked their supply chains and expanded their hyperlocal networks. And here we are.”
Aadit Palicha, the 19-year-old co-founder of Zepto, which too is on the 10-minute bandwagon, said there is an organic need to reach homes sooner and sees the company’s growth as confirmation. “Our eight-month-old company has been seeing around 61% month-on-month revenue growth and this suggests there’s an organic need for seamless grocery delivery. Which is why we are doing what we are doing — establishing a hyperlocal network,” said Palicha. “Sceptics may see it as a market bubble or something, but the value proposition that we and investors are seeing on the other side of the table is extremely promising,” he added.
A spokesperson for Swiggy’s Instamart also said quick commerce was the need of the hour. Instamart does not, however, promise a specific time frame. “We deliver in minutes. But we don’t commit to doing so in 10 minutes. Instamart’s users are those who are time-pressed and seeking convenience. The last 18 months have seen users across demographics opening up to digitisation of grocery-buying,” the spokesperson said.
The speed bump
Superfast groceries are usually not available across a large urban sprawl but in clusters. Based on demand density, dark stores or tie-ups with local stores are forged with an average operational radius of 2-3km. Speed in the current quick delivery regime is, however, not just about technology. Still not, at least.
Accounts of reckless driving and an incentive regime that has been decried as exploitative have drawn stinging criticism for months in various quarters, the latest from Trinamool Congress MP Mohua Maitra, who has sought a law banning 10-minute deliveries, saying “no civilized society can be incentivising delivery executives to break traffic rules” and put lives at risk. This has raised the bigger question of sustainability even as companies try to find the right time band for quick commerce.
In Gurgaon, which has been a test market for the superfast regime, police say they have their hands full trying to contain rash driving by delivery agents zigzagging the city, many of them on small e-scooters. “We believed the companies forced them to deliver items in a certain time frame. But the companies deny that and say they operate in hyperlocal clusters. We are educating all such riders and their companies about the laws. They need to keep extra time in hand when driving on roads. Wrong-side driving and speeding will not be tolerated,” said DCP (traffic) RS Tomar.
For agents, even if distances are small, the rush comes from the rewards of delivering more, which means more income from the day. With no time to Dawdle, Sonu Kumar (22) devoured his lunch during a pit stop under a tree, dust swirling around him on an arid June day in Gurgaon. He hadn’t been giving himself even these 5 minutes for weeks, skipping his meals to complete 50 orders (which would guarantee him Rs 2,500).
Sonu said he fainted because of the heat and lack of food one day and has become more careful about his meals since. “The company doesn’t force us to deliver in 10 minutes, but our pay increases if we deliver more. Initially, a rider would get around Rs 25 to Rs 30 per order. As they become more experienced, the commission increases to Rs 50 per order,” he said.
Besides, many have taken to deliveries during the pandemic after losing their jobs and need the extra buck to run their households. “I got sacked by the school where I taught physical education. To sustain myself and my family of five, I took this up. It is in my interest to deliver at least 40 orders a day so that I can take home around Rs 1,500 and manage a monthly income of Rs 35,000 to Rs 40,000,” said 50-year-old Ghanshyam Singh.
But he worries if he can sustain the pace. “It’s backbreaking work,” said Sonu, who rides his bike for an average seven hours daily, besides climbing stairs with heavy bags. “That’s how it is,” he added.