In short order, New York City has become a testing ground for super-fast grocery delivery services. Across the five boroughs, so-called "dark stores," which are essentially mini-warehouses, have opened up with the goal of delivering popular food items to a given area within 10 to 15 minutes.  

Locals have almost certainly noticed them: oddly-placed storefronts plastered with ads that usually feature a hand-drawn sign on the door saying something like "Employees Only."  

Moving in and out of these storefronts are bike riders hauling large, branded backpacks. Some of these brands are recent arrivals, like Gorillas, Buyk, Getir, and Jokr. Others are stalwarts of the delivery biz that have recently upped their speed to keep up with competition. 

DoorDash, for instance, announced on Monday that it will now offer 15-minute delivery for a limited number of grocery items in the downtown Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.

Notably, DoorDash's rapid delivery service will be organized under a separate division that will hire employees who will work a set schedule rather than as independent gig workers, a major departure for the service that has fought hard to maintain its workers' contractor status.  

"We want to meet people where they are," Max Rettig, DoorDash's vice president of public policy, told AP. "We also believe people should have more choices, not fewer choices."

What made one of the biggest players in the delivery business change its stripes? Just look at the competition. Gorillas, one of the more established rapid-delivery companies in the industry, plans to have a total of 15 locations spread across the five boroughs by the end of the year. 

Launched in Berlin, Germany, during the pandemic, the company offers 10-minute deliveries and hopes to dominate in New York before expanding its model to the rest of the country.  

"Entering the U.S. through New York is a proven strategy," Adam Wacenske, U.S. head of operations, told Cheddar. "With the amount of players popping up, we want to sort of win here, and once we win here, we can then expand from there."

Wacenske said he's bullish about the rapid delivery model but emphasized that the exact time a delivery takes is less important than providing a consistent and quality service. He added that Gorillas orders usually arrive in 10 minutes, though they can take 15 minutes at peak times. 

"I don't know if the customer knows the difference between nine minutes and 10 minutes," he said. "And 15 minutes is really fast to get anything." 

Perhaps most customers can't tell the difference between a nine, a 10, or even a 15-minute delivery, but as Amazon Prime's one-day delivery offer has shown, a single company can quickly and permanently shift consumer expectations, and rapid delivery is looking more like the next industry standard that companies will be racing to provide just to keep up. 

Consumer Expectations 

Of course, the prospect of faster and faster delivery times is a concept with a long lineage among ambitious retailers. As some readers may recall, rapid delivery has been tempting companies well before the most recent explosion in e-commerce and app-based services. 

During the dot-com boom of the late '90s and early 2000s, several companies emerged promising what were, at the time, unprecedented delivery windows. was one such example. The venture capital-funded startup promised one-hour delivery of "videos, games, dvds, music, mags, books, food, basics & more" but was wiped out when the bubble burst in 2001, along with several other delivery services that were, charitably, way ahead of their time or, less charitably, way too ambitious given the available technology.

To their credit, rapid delivery — sometimes called quick commerce — is notoriously difficult regardless of how much slick technology or fine-tuned algorithms you bring to the table. 

"A lot of people have tried it, and a lot of people have failed already," said Brittain Ladd, a retail industry analyst and former Amazon employee who specializes in rapid grocery delivery and micro-fulfillment. "It is exceedingly difficult to make a delivery in 15 minutes. There are so many things that have to go right. The goal is to make it so it's repeatable and reproducible." 

Indeed, the model does require specific constraints to make it feasible. Most providers, for instance, offer a limited number of products, so they can ensure availability. They also tend to keep full-time employees, including riders and warehouse workers, in order to have maximum control over the delivery and fulfillment process. 

"We know that everybody's on a safe bike because they're not bringing their own. We provide them," said Wacenske. "We know that everybody has a safe helmet because they're not bringing their own. We provide them." 

The placement of "dark stores," or micro-fulfillment centers, is also crucial. Each location has a set radius in which it can deliver within the promised time, but figuring out what that range will be for each area is a challenge requiring sophisticated mapping, as well as on-the-ground experience. 

Wacenske said Gorillas assesses each area individually. Mapping software provides a recommended range, but then the company makes an assessment based on factors such as the layout of the grid, traffic patterns, topography, and density. 

He explained that hitting that 10-minute mark is a little easier in a neighborhood with a wider, more straightforward layout, like Chelsea, for example, than in a neighborhood that's windier and more crowded, like the Lower East Side or the West Village.

He added that 10-15 minutes became the goal because anything above that range, particularly in the 20-30 minute range, is already being offered by other companies addressing other use cases, such as prepared food. 

Learning the lay of the land aside, the surest way to make rapid delivery possible is by increasing the number of dark stores in a given area. 

"The last-mile logistics are really difficult for this kind of service, whether you're delivering groceries or you're delivering headphones," Wacenske said. "The infrastructure for last-mile doesn't exist today, except in groceries. I think that what it takes to be faster is more micro-fulfillment centers. You've got to be closer to the customer."

Many of Gorillas' competitors have the same idea. Wacenske noted that some consolidation and closures are inevitable, but that for the moment competition is actually good for consumers, as companies race to improve the quality and speed of their service.  

Ladd expects more companies and sectors to adopt this approach, in some cases essentially turning their retail locations into micro-fulfillment centers that leverage cutting-edge robotics to pluck items from the shelves and hand them over to a rider.   

"We're doing it with groceries and in a year or two at most, we'll be able to do it for the majority of products that consumers buy," he said. "The only limit will be appliances, furniture, and big, bulky, heavy stuff." 

He expects major retail brands such as Target, Walmart, and Kroger to follow suit first, but thinks that eventually most retailers will offer some kind of rapid delivery option. 

"Do you want a Michael Kors handbag that costs $3,000? Not a problem, it will be there in 15 minutes," he said. 

'I've Got Tons of Ideas' or Ask the Locals

Propping up this buzzy new business model are the workers hopping on bikes and riding off into the busy streets of New York with backpacks full of groceries, and like many innovative, technology-led companies, Gorillas has faced its fair share of labor issues.

In Berlin, over the past year, riders for Gorillas have staged multiple protests and strikes over issues such as firings, lack of equipment, and pay discrepancies. Riders in the German city even formed a collective for organizing labor actions that led to a wave of firings over the summer. 

Wacenske said that the "silver lining" to the situation in Berlin was that the U.S. operations could learn from what happened there, though he couldn't name any specific policy changes.  

"The things they care about are safety, the right gear, and making sure the job we're asking them to do is achievable and attainable," he said. 

Aaron Black, who has worked as a rider for Gorillas at its Harlem location for the past three weeks, said that generally a 10-minute delivery is feasible. 

"It is, but it depends where you go. I'll say that," Black explained, as he was headed into a shift last Friday. "Some of the distances are just a little too far. Sometimes it will say a mile, and it's a true mile, but New York's terrain and geography can be a little hard to navigate."

He added that the company was "not very" responsive when it comes to listening to riders' concerns about the range of certain deliveries, but that overall management wasn't bad.

His biggest ask is that the company engage more with employees and tap them for their local knowledge.  

"Honestly, try to listen to the minority employees," he said. "I don't feel like they listen to us well enough. I understand they're coming from Germany, but you got to listen to the people who have been here, who know the area, who know the people. If you listen to us, I guarantee things will run smoother. You'll get a lot more done. You'll get a lot more customers and more riders." 

Black noted that his own average time was five minutes per order. 

"I'm from Harlem, born and raised," he said. "I can help them. I've got tons of ideas." 

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