Metro city reporter Nathan Domon discusses whether or not Amsterdam’s residents actually need the influx of grocery delivery services taking over the city and the measures the municipality is taking against them.
Over the past year, Amsterdam has seen a rise in ultra-fast grocery delivery services. Start-ups such as Getir, Flink and Gorillas have taken over the city by delivering groceries to people’s doors in no time – most of these companies promise to deliver in 15 minutes. Whether you use these apps or not, it has become impossible to miss them: the city is swarming with delivery people, flashy advertisements are on most public transport stops and mini-warehouses stocked with groceries have popped up everywhere.
It has been argued that a grocery revolution is underway because of the way these start-ups operate. To the delight of their consumers, they are very easy to use; they bring groceries to your door in less than 15 minutes, the selection is more than extensive, they offer decent prices compared to supermarkets, and most of them do not require minimum order amounts or charge delivery fees. A survey by Fonk shows that millennials and young families are big consumers of these services in the Netherlands. It’s no surprise that they are becoming increasingly popular in Amsterdam as their customers currently enjoy a very convenient service with almost no extra costs.
However, the pursuit of speed and convenience comes at a hidden cost. Getting your groceries delivered to your door in no time may sound tempting, but it is doing a lot of damage to Amsterdam city life. Ultra-fast delivery means riders are pushed to ride extremely fast and take risks to deliver their order as quickly as possible. They ride e-bikes and cargo bikes, drive through red lights and overtake on the right – all of this while keeping their eyes focused on their mobile phones. “Speed is an obsession, to say the least,” says Stanley, who worked for Gorillas at the start of this year. “You’re riding twice as fast as everybody else. Sometimes people would call the warehouse and say they almost crashed their car because they got cut off by one of our riders!” This reckless behavior is turning the narrow streets of Amsterdam into a jungle, creating stress and insecurity among locals. “Sometimes it feels like it’s a race circuit,” says Tom, a 22-year-old student who recently had a minor accident with a rider while going to university. “When our bikes crashed into each other, I barely had time to get back on my feet when he was already gone. I guess they can’t afford to lose time.” A survey by Een Vandaag shows that one-third of riders in the Netherlands have already suffered an accident on the job.
To be as fast as possible, these delivery services need to be located as close as possible to consumers. This is why they have taken over existing shopfronts or empty buildings and turned them into mini-warehouses, or “dark stores”, closed to the public where they store groceries. The problem is that their proximity to residential areas is causing nuisances to the locals, like riders taking over sidewalks with their bikes, making noise, leaving rubbish and trucks coming and going in the middle of the night. “All the bikes are parked up outside so you can hop on as quickly as possible and sprint off. And riders are just waiting outside smoking, talking and laughing right below an apartment,” explained Stanley. “Neighbors would come and complain about the noise or rubbish left behind.” Residents in areas such as De Pijp, Amsterdam West, Weesperstraat and Zeeburg have protested against dark stores. Others have expressed worries that the multiplication of dark stores undermines sidewalk life, leads to empty or ugly storefronts and decreases social interactions. “It does not look like a normal business, all windows are dead black, so you can’t see outside”, explained Stanley. Because grocery delivery reduces the need for physical retail, it risks stripping away local supermarkets and turning city centers into dark cities devoid of the vitality that defines city life. “It’s becoming a big distribution center. Beautiful stores are disappearing. […] This is not what you want. It’s not good for the quality of life”, said one resident living in De Pijp. In Amsterdam West, a petition was signed by more than 1,300 people to protest against the dark store on Van Limburg Stirumplein. The petition committee asks for “a cozy, child-friendly neighborhood with fine shops and restaurants instead of a faceless enterprise.” According to a recent survey done by Baaz, almost half of the people in the Netherlands think these services negatively impact the urban landscape.
Growing pressure from locals has prompted the municipality of Amsterdam to take drastic measures. Since early this year, the opening of new dark stores has been frozen to prevent the situation from worsening. In May 2022, it was decided that dark stores were not allowed in residential areas anymore. Since then, several dark stores have been forced to shut down because they were not in line with the city zoning agreement – the most recent being a Flink dark store in Amsterdam West on October 13 2022. These closures have been well received by residents. “It is such a relief. It feels like we are getting our neighbourhood back”, declares a resident living in De Pijp. Delivery companies have complained about the closures because it makes it harder for them to keep their “15-minute delivery” promise. Getir and Gorillas have gone to court to protest these decisions, but the court has ruled in favor of the municipality. In a recent interview for AT5, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor for Spatial Development, Reinier van Dantzig (D66), welcomed these decisions and emphasized the importance of these rules for the sustainability of Amsterdam city life: “we have to make clear what is acceptable and what is good social planning in our city. That does not mean you can put a distribution company in the middle of a residential area. It is up to those companies to adapt their business model to that.”
Despite these measures, the battle between the municipality and the ultra-fast grocery delivery business looks far from over and delivery services have been very creative in avoiding forced closures. In September, Getir announced that seven dark stores had been turned into art stores “to improve the urban landscape and provide local artists with exhibition space, but also to make a social contribution.” The Turkish start-up has recently converted three dark stores in residential areas into supermarkets accessible to everyone so that customers can walk in and “view the entire range, collect, checkout and take away.” The company stated that these dark stores would not have to shut down as they were “not different from traditional supermarkets”. Nevertheless, a visit in October showed that these re-organized dark stores are more of a decoy than real supermarkets: a small counter had been placed at the entrance, items were weirdly displaced and the staff was mostly busy collecting food for deliveries. It is not clear if people are allowed to walk in. Surprisingly, the staff was somewhat confused to see people entering the store. One staff member said that the dark store had been turned into a supermarket to avoid closure and admitted that it has not been common to see people walking in to do groceries so far. One can indeed doubt the purpose of a walk-in dark store since prices are relatively higher than in the traditional supermarkets located within a stone’s throw.
More generally, the question remains whether these services add something to the city. Stanley’s response is clear, “Nobody needs to get groceries in 15 minutes. If you think you don’t have time to do your groceries, then you need to make time to do it. These services provide a solution to a problem that does not exist.” A survey by Baaz shows that 86% of Dutch people think that getting groceries in such a short time is excessive. Tom agrees, “Amsterdam needs to get rid of these dark stores. These apps are trying to make us addicted to something we don’t need. They know that if you use it once, you’re hooked, and you’ll do it again. It’s absurd.”