With its jumbled, tightly packed shelves and seemingly inexhaustible range of products, Kwik Stop Express is the sort of shop that had become an essential part of daily life in British towns and cities.
Owner Shahzid Razaq spent 20 years building up the business, rising at five in the morning seven days a week and remaining on his stool behind the worn formica counter until late. Emergency toothpaste, newspapers, fresh oranges, last-minute red wine – they’re available at any hour of the day and through much of the night.
But something has changed in recent months. Trade is dwindling at Kwik Stop Express. There’s no sign of the huge Covid bonus enjoyed by the major supermarkets as people turn to home cooking instead of eating out. Lockdown has seen Mr Razaq’s vital passing trade collapse.
Now Deliveroo, the Amazon-backed meals delivery service, and rival Uber Eats, are fast expanding into groceries thanks to a new generation of consumers who can’t even be bothered to walk to their corner store for something they want
Delivery costs £1.99 and there is a minimum spend of £10, but Mr Salur says they keep the product prices less than ten per cent higher than a supermarket
And now there’s another threat to his survival. He can even see it in the street outside: mopeds zipping past his shopfront on Brixton Hill, South London.
Some are part of the booming business of takeaway deliveries from restaurants heading to flats and houses.
But a growing number now have many other items on board, too – chocolate, beer, milk, crisps, washing-up liquid, fresh fruit, groceries, soap and shampoo. The full range of sundries that used to keep the likes of Kwik Stop Express afloat.
Britain was seeing a big rise in the amount of supermarket home deliveries well before the pandemic. Now Deliveroo, the Amazon-backed meals delivery service, and rival Uber Eats, are fast expanding into groceries thanks to a new generation of consumers who can’t even be bothered to walk to their corner store for something they want.
The past few weeks have seen the launch of the smartphone app Getir in London, which means ‘bring’ in Turkish and promises goods to your door in just ten minutes. The business, founded in Turkey, is only six years old but is already valued at £620 million.
There’s also Weezy, which calls itself the ‘superfast supermarket’, and is advertising heavily. ‘Ever been overtaken by your own groceries?’ ask the billboards. ‘Groceries delivered within 15 minutes.’ Launched last summer in London, Weezy is about to begin a £14.6 million expansion nationwide.
Deliveroo has already caused concern with its so-called dark kitchens – cheap catering facilities set up for major restaurant brands in warehouses and prefabs. But now Getir and Weezy are introducing ‘dark supermarkets’ – networks of grocery-packed storage units in lock-ups and warehouses to provide goods for super-fast local deliveries.
‘We’re democratising the right to laziness,’ says Nazim Salur, founder of Getir. But laziness comes at a price, of course.
Deliveries might add £2 to £5 to the total cost, depending on which app is used and the size of the order. The products will also be slightly more expensive than normal. But another cost is felt elsewhere – in the lost trade suffered by local family grocers.
Then there is the small matter of tax. None of the courier services have to worry about the sort of crippling business rates that Mr Razaq and his fellow shopkeepers usually pay for their premises. And, like other web-based companies, Deliveroo and Uber declare no profits in this country so escape paying corporation tax.
There are two sorts of service on offer through smartphone apps. With the first, you pay a company to pick up your meal or groceries from a third party – which then pays commission on the sale. Uber Eats and Deliveroo work this way.
As The Mail on Sunday revealed last October, Deliveroo takes up to 35 per cent from the high street restaurants that cook the food for its meals service. It is a business model which stands accused of threatening the future of family-run cafes and restaurants.
Now, say its critics, Deliveroo has corner shops in its sights, too, and is demanding a similar cut from convenience stores just about surviving on small margins. The big chains can cope, but not sole traders such as Mr Razaq and his family.
Getir and Weezy take a second approach, and deliver from their own stock of goods stored in lock-ups and warehouses. Getir already operates five of these ‘dark supermarkets’ in the capital but says it will soon have 20.
The Mail on Sunday visited one of them in a renovated railway arch in Battersea, South London.
Inside, it was just like one of the convenience stores that Getir threatens to replace. We watch as an order comes in, triggering a phone alarm for one of the pickers, who then darts round the shelves. Within a couple of minutes a delivery bag is packed and handed to a courier who departs swiftly on a moped. ‘We count seconds here,’ says a supervisor.
Delivery costs £1.99 and there is a minimum spend of £10, but Mr Salur says they keep the product prices less than ten per cent higher than a supermarket. ‘It’s more convenient than a convenience store,’ he says. ‘With this you don’t have to carry anything, you don’t have to take out your credit card. You can just continue doing what you’re doing. And I don’t take ten minutes of your time, I take one or two. It’s incredibly efficient.
‘The model is not the same as Deliveroo. We own the stock. They depend on a third party but we do not. They have to go to the supermarket or shop and pick up the shopping. We can [deliver] in ten minutes. They take at least 30.’
The writer Dolly Alderton recently tweeted about paying £10.98 for a Deliveroo order of crisps and chocolate worth £5.70
He adds: ‘Laziness used to belong to the rich. They paid other people to do the things they don’t like, butlers and so forth.
‘Let’s face it, most people don’t like food shopping. With us, anyone can have a digital butler. If there was an app where you could order a glass of water from the kitchen, in the same house, millions of people would use it. Fifty years ago only the rich could fly, now everyone can fly. These things become for the masses. It’s progress for the ordinary guy.’
Weezy, which promises delivery in 15 minutes, is equally forthright in its alleged benefits.
‘I think we need better ways to shop,’ says Cat Pina, its commercial director. ‘We’ve been shopping the same way for a long time. I think people should be doing the best things with their time, not walking round the aisles.
‘I don’t think people should be hostage to their grocery shop.’
At £2.95, Weezy has a higher delivery charge than Getir, but Ms Pina says it’s worth it.
‘If it was just about speed, it would be little different from going to your local corner shop,’ she adds. ‘We receive our fresh fruit and vegetables every day from the wholesale market.’
Weezy plans to open 40 dark supermarkets – or ‘fulfilment centres’ as it prefers to call them – around Britain by the end of the year. Its smartphone app is certainly easy to use, with simple categories such as Dairy, Fruit and Veg and Lockdown Essentials.
But the real wealth of options is in the sections marked Alcohol and Snacks – where corner shops used to make their money.
With a few clicks I’ve ordered yogurt for breakfast, upmarket crisps, cans of IPA beer and three bottles of sparkling water – things I would normally buy from Mr Razaq’s Kwik Stop Express round the corner. I get a text saying my order is being prepared and another a few minutes later to let me know the courier is on their way.
My shopping arrives in 19 minutes, instead of the promised 15, but then my breakfast – the yogurt, not the beer – has arrived without me even having to get dressed. But it’s not cheap.
The writer Dolly Alderton recently tweeted about paying £10.98 for a Deliveroo order of crisps and chocolate worth £5.70.
But the convenience seems to be addictive – and for Britain’s traditional convenience stores, this is troubling. Deliveroo has already said that its on-demand grocery service is now the fastest growing part of its business. Last month the company announced huge expansion in the UK to locations such as Yeovil, East Kilbride, King’s Lynn, Scarborough, Llanelli and Exmouth. In its native Turkey, Getir now makes nearly six million grocery deliveries per month.
‘It concerns me,’ says Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association. ‘For many restaurants, the likes of Deliveroo became a necessary evil during the pandemic. And now it looks like things will go the same way for small food shops. The margins in grocery store food are very low anyway. If you start paying commission on top of the other costs associated with running a store it could cripple them. The rise of dark supermarkets is yet another blow to the high street.
‘I think it’s generational. Everything is geared towards convenience now. I’m worried that people will end up never going out for anything. They’ll get everything delivered. I worry about the social impact. We’re becoming less sociable as people.
‘We talk less and less and now we might see each other less, too.’
As for the convenience stores that do sign up with apps to offer deliveries, many feel they have no choice.
Take Nisa Local in Notting Hill, West London, which takes 100 Deliveroo orders a day but has to pay 25 per cent commission on each sale. ‘It’s not fair on the grocer,’ says the manager. ‘When it comes to groceries, you’re working on very small margins. It’s so competitive out there now. Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and the bigger supermarkets are on Deliveroo.’
So he must be too. At least he’s not charged 35 per cent commission like the independent Usman Supermarket nearby.
Deliveroo maintains that its expansion is good news for independent shops and that it is ‘proud to be supporting local shopkeepers through the pandemic’ by helping them to reach more customers.
Uber Eats says its ‘top priority is to support retail stores, restaurants and the thousands of people who rely on them’.
Getir and Weezy, meanwhile, claim their order-from-your-sofa style of shopping is no less than social progress.
‘There is going to be a gradual migration to digital grocery shopping in the next 20 years, just like what happened with banking,’ says Getir’s Mr Salur.
‘More and more people use internet banking but banks still exist. Something similar will happen with this. The new players like us and the old players will both operate.’
Mr Razaq is not so sure. He says that Kwik Stop Express is on the brink of collapse and that groceries by moped could spell the end.
‘These companies are taking our last breath,’ he says. ‘At this rate, corner shops will be finished in a few years’ time. I can feel it.
‘We are struggling here. Rent, rates, wages, bills – we can’t afford it. I know a lot of others who have shut. These new competitors pose a huge threat to our existence.’
Could he register with Deliveroo and pay the commission charge? Only, he says, by driving up prices to unreasonable levels.
‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ he says. ‘Before the pandemic, I had three people working here. We were really busy. Now it’s just me twiddling my thumbs most of the time. It’s been devastating.’
Additional reporting: Lucy Jones