Michael Moynihan: Dark stores are another step on the way to the apocalypse

Michael Moynihan: Dark stores are another step on the way to the apocalypse

Bicycle delivery riders gather on St Patrick's Street in Cork City. If you feel queasy about the potential for exploiting delivery workers, as appears to have happened in Berlin, then that should give you pause for thought.

The question keeps getting asked because it never gets answered.

What do we do with the city’s vacant spaces, all those blank retail zones, the visible wastelands?

A stroll through the heart of Cork will show you plenty of those vacancies, which offer a sharp contrast to the bustle of bygone years — a bustle which survives in atmospheric photographs of the good old days, with dozens of small shops and businesses on the side streets, each of them offering something different, a bespoke service or product particular to that specific outlet.

True, the realities of modern economics mean most of those businesses were bound to disappear, but one of the replacements doesn’t inspire confidence.

The ‘dark store’ is a phenomenon that asserted itself in the US, particularly during the pandemic period. A vacant building or premises is taken over as a form of storehouse or central hub for groceries, say, but there’s no walking in the front door to pick up a carton of milk and a mini-pack of Dark Chocolate Digestives (always with the sugar — ed).

Those groceries can be ordered online and delivered to your door, usually within a very short period of time as a matter of convenience and ease to the purchaser. The companies behind these ‘dark stores’ are often backed by venture capitalists and are seen, no doubt, as ‘disrupting’ the traditional shopping model.

Far be it from me to criticise innovation, but this does come across as yet another step on the way to the apocalypse. Recently here I mentioned post offices, and how those green-liveried buildings have a vital role to play in the social lives of their users, particularly the elderly. In an Irish Examiner piece some months ago a postmaster cited the customer who said their visit to the post office was their only human contact in the week.

Impact on human interaction

This latest iteration of the retail experience, the dark store, reduces the prospect of human interaction even further.

The drop-in to the local corner shop for an Examiner and a box of tea bags isn’t a possibility with the dark store (to give their creators credit, the Tolkienesque name is a perfect description) because they’re not supermarkets in the traditional sense, just delivery hubs.

In New York, for instance, such stores must allow people to walk in off the street to buy from the shelves, but a city official was frustrated a couple of weeks ago when trying to do so. Gale Brewer told The New York Times: “I said, ‘Can I walk around?’ and they said, ‘No, order on the app.’” Brewer added that she was concerned by the fire hazard created by the number of motorbikes — for delivery riders — stored inside the store, a point we’ll come back to.

Before you throw your eyes to heaven and scoff at the prospect of dark stores in Ireland, can I direct you to a story in The Irish Times about Shuppa in Dublin last February?

It’s a dark store in Lombard Street in the capital whose boss said: ‘“The delivery radius is set by the cycle time for our riders. So if a rider can cycle it on one of our electric bikes within 11 minutes, then that’s in our delivery zone.

“At the Lombard Street store, the e-bikes are parked up inside the entrance, awaiting the orders coming in. Given that they have a maximum of 11 minutes to get the order to its destination, that leaves just four minutes to pick the items from the shelves, fridges and freezers in the store, split over two rooms.”

Increased isolation

Perhaps you welcome such a development, in which case good luck to you. Further sites in south, north and west Dublin were under consideration at that stage, and if those succeed — if the Lombard Street store takes off — then presumably Cork will become a target as well, given the population density. If the number of food delivery cyclists zooming around the city is anything to go by then the appetite for side-stepping the traditional customer-retail worker interaction certainly exists.

As an example of the increased isolation of modern society, though, could this be bettered? Eradicating the last sliver of contact, the random interactions which make up the furniture of your day? How many times has a trip to buy one thing led to a completely different experience?

If you’re old enough to remember your O Henry stories from the old Exploring English books we had in secondary school you may remember the great line from The Green Door: ‘The true adventurer goes forth aimless and uncalculating to meet and greet unknown fate.’ There’s a reason O (real name William Porter) didn’t write ‘... to meet and greet his delivery driver at the kerbside.’ The dark store may not be the great innovation that people think, and not just because it’s stifling inventive short-story writers in their quest for great sentences either.

Berlin blues

Berlin adopted the fast-delivery system earlier than New York but customers appear to have fallen out of love with the service pretty fast, whether that’s because of disgruntled consumers beginning to point to lengthier delivery times, for instance, from ten minutes to twenty, then from twenty minutes to an hour, or more serious concerns. Other customers in Berlin dropped one of the dark store services, Gorillas, because of concerns about the safety of its delivery staff; when those delivery workers tried to organise union representation, the company fired hundreds of them. (“Anyone who’s thinking about being an ethical consumer doesn’t want to order from them right now,” sociologist Moritz Altenried told The New York Times.)

Other European cities have also fallen out of love with this food delivery model. Reuters reported earlier this year that Amsterdam politicians proposed a ban on new dark stores opening up in the city based on the experience of the existing businesses. A spokesman for the politicians pointed to “a growing number of complaints from the direct neighbourhood”.

The spokesperson cited noise and scooter traffic arriving and leaving buildings, and the appearance of the stores, which are used for delivery only and not open to the public — and often have darkened windows to signal that.

If you feel queasy about the potential for exploiting delivery workers, as appears to have happened in Berlin, then that should give you pause.

 If the entire system suggests an inherent prejudice against people who can’t use an app or make payments online, then that should also give you pause 

That makes two groups who don’t appear to benefit from this system.

On top of that factor in the collateral damage done by dark stores to the irreplaceable fabric of the city you love. Many of the shops and stores that you grew up with fall by the wayside eventually, but there’s no need to accelerate that fall by bringing the outriders of a faceless dystopia right to your own front door in the process.

Cork is better than that. All of Ireland is.

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