September 3, 2021

Take a look inside a dark store

Sifted visited one of on-demand grocery startup Getir's dark stores in London.

Katja Staple

9 min read

Getir's dark store in Battersea. Credit: Katja Staple

On-demand grocery delivery services are the current European startup craze. There are now dozens of companies offering to deliver bananas, birthday cakes and booze within 15 minutes in cities across the continent. Adverts for their apps are plastered across buses and billboards, and their couriers are familiar sights in city centres.

But the ‘dark stores’ which fulfil customers’ orders are a whole lot more mysterious — even though there are now hundreds across Europe, and dozens more opening every month. 

Sifted visited one of Getir’s dark stores in Battersea, London to find out more about how they work.

Turancan Salur, Getir’s UK general manager. Credit: Katja Staple

Getir is the best-funded fast grocery startup in Europe. Since launching in Istanbul in 2015, it’s raised €840m and currently operates 54 dark stores in the UK. Its UK general manager is Turancan Salur, son of CEO Nazim Salur. 

Today in the UK, Getir employs 2k staff, including 1.85k pickers and drivers. That’s a lot for a tech startup — but nothing on a traditional grocer: UK retailer Sainsbury’s, currently valued at $10bn, employs over 100k people. 

This dark store — effectively a small warehouse where products are stored, packed into orders and handed to drivers — is located in a bright railway arch. 

Entrance to the Getir dark store in Battersea, London. Credit: Katja Staple

Getir employs about 20 people per store, most in their mid-20s. There is a break room with a coffee machine, next to a rack of charged scooter batteries. (All of Getir’s scooters are electric.) 

The inside looks much like a corner shop, just with slightly narrower aisles. 

The Getir store is open from 7am to midnight, seven days a week. Evenings are peak time for the pickers. Credit: Katja Staple

Instead of a till, there's a counter where pickers hand drivers their orders. A computer screen shows current orders as they move through the process stages.  

Credit: Katja Staple

There are no shoppers, just three pickers whizzing around, all wearing face masks. 

They select some products, scan them and place them in a shopping basket. They're focused, but share an occasional comment or joke. While Sifted is touring the aisles, a driver shows a picker a betting slip for a football match, who then weighs in on the odds. 

Whenever a customer places an order on the Getir app, an alert sounds in the store. As soon as a picker accepts the order on a handheld device, the clock starts. 

Speed of picking is a key performance indicator and determines compensation. Pickers earn up to an extra £3 per hour if they meet performance indicators, like picking speedily, packing a low number of damaged or missing items and having a high customer rating.

Pickers scan every product they select. This information feeds into the inventory management system, the website and informs promotions. Credit: Katja Staple

“I need Magnums,” calls a picker from the back, and her colleague fishes the ice cream out of the freezer and folds the wrapping to expose the bar code. She swoops in and scans the last item with her handheld. Then she places the completed basket on the counter to be packed into bags. Her clock stops.

Inan studied accounting, worked as a branch manager for betting shop William Hill and as a prison officer. Today, he is the quickest picker in Getir's Battersea shop. Credit: Katja Staple

The man who grabbed the Magnum is called Inan and he's worked for Getir since April. Previously, he studied accounting, worked as a branch manager for betting shop William Hill and as a prison officer. 

On average, it takes approximately one minute to put together an order. Credit: Katja Staple

Inan is fiercely competitive and usually wins competitions with colleagues for the quickest picker in the store. 

When asked how long he takes per order he pauses and responds earnestly: “Depends. If it’s a couple of pharmacy items, I try to do it in seven seconds. If there are 10 items, about 45 seconds.” 

Once an order is complete, it is put on the counter for drivers to collect. Credit: Katja Staple

The store, which opened seven months ago, stocks around 1.5k different products.

The most commonly ordered products — like sweets, snacks and fresh fruit — are in easy reach near the counter, while less frequently ordered items are further away. Crisps in front, a champagne fridge at the back. 

Getir currently works with a variety of direct suppliers and wholesalers, with a store receiving around three or four deliveries a day. It plans to consolidate deliveries more over time. Getir knows each store's inventory in real time; items are scanned when they're sold and every order is tracked online. 

Products nearing their expiry date are often given away for free or part of a promotion.

This data determines all aspects of the business. Products are selected based on customer behaviour. In east London for example, customers will find a larger selection of Halal products. The inventory management system automatically reorders products running low and the app only displays items which are actually in the store. Promotions can be individually tailored to customer needs and product availability; products nearing their expiry date are often given away for free or part of a promotion. 

It's an efficient — but largely manual process — compared to online supermarket Ocado’s futuristic warehouses. 

“The current automation solutions are built for very large fulfilment centres,” says Salur. “When there are solutions that come onto the market that work for smaller spaces, we want to be the first ones to try them out.” 

Terry used to work in construction and is a delivery driver today. Credit: Katja Staple

Salur introduces Terry who was starting his lunch break. When asked what’s for lunch, he says: “Whatever the missus packs.” 

Terry, who’s from just around the corner in Fulham, used to work in construction, but jobs dried up due to the pandemic. He says the Getir hiring process was quick and he was on a motorbike just a few days after applying. 

Drivers verify they have the correct order and take it to the customer. Credit: Katja Staple

Getir employs its pickers and drivers and offers benefits like sick pay, holidays and pensions. Unlike Deliveroo and Uber Eats’ couriers, they're not gig economy workers.

Getir drivers and pickers receive the London living wage of £10.85 per hour. Incentives are bonuses on top of hourly salary: drivers receive an additional 50p per delivery.

In busy times, a driver can make about four deliveries and receives a 50p bonus for each. Credit: Katja Staple

Salur says that high-performing employees can progress quickly: “One of our first couriers in London later became a store assistant, then an operations support associate and most recently he helped our launch in Germany.”

This model is working in Turkey, where couriers are paid a fraction of London salaries. Some critics doubt whether the model can be profitable in high-wage cities like London.

“The model still works in the UK,” says Salur, without revealing exact numbers. According to him, the UK stores are not yet profitable, but will be “in a few years, maybe sooner, depending on how things go.” 

Getir motorcycles are monitored for traffic violations such as speeding. Credit: Katja Staple

Salur has a long list of continual improvements relating to every aspect of the business, including supplier relations, data analytics and operations. 

He's also got big expansion plans; Getir hopes to hire another 1k people in the UK before the end of the year. 55% of London is currently served by Getir, compared to 98% of Istanbul, Getir’s home town. Expect many more purple and yellow motorcycles coming your way.

Katja Staple writes about the business of startups for Sifted.

Katja Staple

Katja Staple writes about the business of startups for Sifted