It's 2 in the afternoon. Workers around me, in their early or mid-20s, are scurrying around, picking, packing and billing items that have to be delivered to the doorstep of customers in 10 minutes flat.
Three black mobile phone-like handheld devices are placed on a table. Every few seconds, one of them makes a siren-like noise. One of the pickers holds it and runs across the aisle to scan and collect the items that have been ordered, holding a blue cart into which he dumps the products. It takes barely a minute.
It is rush hour, I am told.
This is a scene out of the dark store of your express grocery delivery firm!
What’s a dark store?
The term refers to a retail distribution centre or warehouse that caters exclusively to online shoppers. With 10-minute grocery delivery becoming the new normal, dark stores have become the lifeline of this channel. Their employees are somewhat like the Oompa Loompa helpers from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-- they are all around you making your life more convenient, but you barely notice them.Dark stores look like mini warehouses located closer to customers than the conventional fulfilment centres of online retailers, but they are much more than just storage places. Digitisation and automation are their key pillars.
The speed at which the employees work is both amazing and intriguing at the same time. And why not? After all, at the end of the day, they have to deliver your groceries at your doorstep in 10 minutes or less!
To bring to you a picture from Ground Zero of express delivery, Moneycontrol positioned its reporters at three dark stores in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.
Here’s an account of what followed.
The location is a grimy neighbourhood with a wholesale subzi mandi and a tyre and automobile spare parts market. In the middle of nowhere is a whitewashed three-storey building that houses a dark store with large plastic curtains draping the ground floor entrance. There’s no branding on the outside, making it impossible for a passer-by to know what’s happening inside.
A few can hazard a guess, perhaps, given the dozens of bikes parked outside with riders waiting for their orders, but that’s just about it.
The locale is Pochanpur, a stone’s throw from the buzzing housing societies of Dwarka, one of the largest sub-cities of Asia with a population of over 1.1 million.
The 3,700 square feet space over which it is spread is large by typical dark store standards. It caters to most of the large housing societies spread across three sectors of Dwarka -- 21, 22 and 23.
This dark store has 34 employees who work in two shifts.Once inside, the milieu marks a 360-degree turn from its exterior.
Brightly lit and ventilated, the place looks like a larger corner store minus the customers. Chips, fruit juices, bread, flour, oil and pulses -- everything is neatly stacked on shelves.
The aisles are narrower compared to a supermarket and instead of eye-catching advertisements, the iron racks are plastered with barcodes of the products the pickers scan.
By 12:30 pm, this store had already processed 206 deliveries, 195 of which had been delivered. Eighty-two of them had been delivered in less than 10 minutes. The rest of the 206 orders had been either cancelled or the customer who placed them couldn’t be located.
Employee Vishal, 22, (name changed on request) is busy scanning a packet of Epigamia yogurt in the cold storage section. He doesn’t smile while talking. To be fair, his face is covered behind a makeshift handkerchief mask. He says he is happy with this job, which he says is better than the salesperson's job at an internet service provider he had earlier.
“They had increased the (sales) target but not the salary,” he says, explaining his reason for the job switch.
Vishal is the face of thousands of young workers -- some have passed Class 12 and some are graduates who are taking up the roles of packers, pickers and assorters in the fast-paced new-age economy.
This outlet hasn’t implemented it yet, but many dark stores offer incentives to pickers based on the aggregate time taken to assort and bring the products to the front desk. Here, employees are paid a fixed salary, but that clearly makes no difference to the speed at which they work.
“Basic education is fine till the time the person is hands-on,” said the manager of the store who requested anonymity, adding that the workers are paid monthly salaries of Rs.18,000-20,000.
Once the cart filled with items that have been ordered is placed at the front table, it is double-checked.
“Raw banana? Hai (Checked). New potato? Checked. Local Carrot? Checked. Onion? Checked, Methi? Checked. Lemon? Checked. Cauliflower? Checked. Baby Onion? Checked. Green Peas? Checked. Spring Onion? Checked. All done!”There is a 10-second conversation on the billing table before the polybag is zipped, sealed and kept in the drop zone for a delivery man to pick up. Other pickers are queuing up to get their carts billed while the order alerts keep ringing incessantly.
It is a non-stop cycle.
For the 10 packers working in this dark store in Colaba, Mumbai’s upmarket southern tip close to the Arabian Sea, the work conditions are better than those offered by their previous gigs.Three air-conditioners are constantly blowing out air at 16 degree Celsius in the roughly 1,500 sq. ft. warehouse. It is a relief for Devender (name changed on request), the order manager who used to collect road tolls at a booth until this store opened in September.
“You sit all day in that tiny, cramped space trying to give change for Rs 2,000 for a Rs 20 receipt. This job is a blessing in comparison,” said Devender, who later conceded that the ACs are probably meant to keep the fruits and vegetables fresh rather than for the comfort of store workers.
Another worker has joined the store after being laid off from IndiGo during the pandemic. At the airline, he used to load luggage and meals for passengers.
The store is run by an online grocer who sells fresh fruits and vegetables. At noon on a Wednesday, it is buzzing with energy. With employees moving around under white lights and cool air blowing, you could mistake it for a regular supermarket except that there is hardly any space to walk and little by way of aesthetics.
Workers are running about, shouting instructions to one another, coordinating with a colleague who is monitoring orders online and comparing the order contents of Wednesday with Friday, when the app offers maximum discounts. Discounts drive more orders, one packer explains.
On a busy day, this company delivers 100-120 orders between 8 am and 6 pm. Every system and process is aligned towards getting orders delivered quickly, right from the moment one is received. The average basket size is Rs 400-450.An alarm rings from a speaker placed next to a computer everytime a new order comes in.
Once an order is accepted, a timer is ticking down to delivery time, starting from as high as 120 minutes to as low as 15 minutes. In the main room where vegetables are stored, two tables placed side-by-side serve as an assembly line.
Goods are collected, segregated by order, packed in a brown paper bag that is sellotaped, ready for dispatch. Packers rip out the tape about two times a minute, creating a sticky, screechy sound that punctuates the chatter in the store.
Workers call out to each other for specific vegetables or fruits, which are loaded in blue baskets. Workers are constantly running around looking for that one vegetable or fruit. For a small store, the selection is diverse.
Apples alone come in three varieties, labelled Red Delicious, Apple Kinnaur and Royal Gala.“Ye South Bombay wali memsab logon ko ye sab accha lagta hai” (These South Bombay women like this variety), another packer said.
This store delivers only within a range of three kilometres, mostly to Colaba’s defence colonies, where because of security reasons, delivery executives cannot go to individual houses to deliver orders. They have to alert customers from downstairs that their order has been delivered
They talk to this reporter while picking and collecting items and packing them. They cannot spare a moment just to talk; each order -- from picking the items, packing them and bringing it out to the rider – has to be ready within five minutes.
“Mushkil toh hai, lekin aadat padh jaati hai. Pressure aane nahi de sakte” (It is difficult but you get used to it. You can’t let the pressure affect you), said Akhil (name changed), another packer.Workers eat their lunch between 2 pm and 4 pm, one at a time, so that orders can still be packed in the middle of the day. Masks are mandatory in the store but the rule is rarely imposed.
More than half the workers let the masks dangle around their necks and over their chins. When this reporter reminded one employee of the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, he grimaced and covered his nose with his mask. But an hour later, as the reporter was leaving, the mask was dangling from one ear.
These workers work the day shift, and are replaced by a fewer number of workers who come in around 6pm and stay the night. Those hours are more relaxed because the company doesn’t deliver orders then. Night workers have to accept the goods and stack them in crates. As the sun rises and shifts change, the race starts anew.BENGALURU
Located in the semi-industrial area of Malagala, this dark store, which serves an emerging grocery brand, uses predictive analytical capabilities to forecast the number of orders and items ordered based on location, time and day.
One of the pickers checking out her list before selecting vegetables for the cart.
Workers pack vegetables, fruits and other items in bags of different weight capacities and keep them segregated and ready to be picked beforehand.
As soon as an order is placed, it takes around three minutes to put the required items all together in one cart, enabling it to fulfil around 250 orders a day.
“If you aren’t able to keep the order ready in 3-4 minutes, the delivery boy will not make it in 10 minutes. And just like that the brand starts losing customers,” the dark store manager said on condition of anonymity.
He was previously posted in Mumbai and moved to Bengaluru to set up more dark stores as the grocery brand expands its operations, backed by the hefty capital it raised recently.
“Covid ke pehle, 1-2 ghanta araam se milta tha order bhejne mein, abhi toh 3-5 minutes maximum” (Pre-Covid, we used to easily get 1-2 hours to deliver the order, now it's 3-5 minutes at the most), the manager said on a 10-minute break from monitoring staff.
“The competition is so high in the market that if these players do not deliver within 10 minutes, they will lose their share,” he added.
A worker, who typically has studied until Class 10 or 12, is expected to fulfil at least 50 orders a day. Employees can choose to work between 6am and 2:30pm, 2:00pm and 10:30pm and 10pm until morning. The night shift entails collating order data for the day, analysis of the orders, and picking, packing and checking inventory.
These dark stores, which cater to one customer at a time, can deliver orders up to a distance of 5 kilometres.
The competition has intensified in the past couple of months. According to the manager, as soon as a dark store opens, in no time rivals set up their own in the same area.
A senior executive of this company also said its delivery men had been poached by the rivals for double the salaries.
“We paid them Rs400-500 per day. The next day we saw this outlet opening up with all our riders queuing up there,” he said, adding he was later told they were being paid Rs 1,000 a day.“Now we have also revised our salaries. As absurd as it may sound, if we do not match it, we would become redundant. The aim is to just sail through this craziness. If we survive this unwarranted euphoria, chances are that we will be able to make our name in the long run,” he said.