Fast food: How grocery apps like Weezy and Gorillas are changing the delivery game in London

·12-min read
 (ES composite)
(ES composite)

It’s amazing how quickly your basket racks up, once you get started. I only plan to order a couple of last-minute barbecue items on my first trial of Weezy, the new hyper-local delivery app promising to ride quality groceries to your door “in minutes”. I add some crisps, dips and sausages to my digital trolley, but when I see the selection on offer the opportunities to save journeys between Sainsbury’s and my south-west London flat suddenly seem endless. Milk! Toilet roll! Washing powder! Why not, if I’m paying the delivery fee anyway? Hayfever tablets! Better to buy without sneezing my way around the Superdrug. Discounted Brixton Brewery beers! Oh go on then.

The best part: all of it is half price, thanks to the millennial-pink QR code Weezy dropped through my letterbox yesterday. Sadly the free delivery voucher I was handed on Clapham Common at the weekend doesn’t work on top - you can only use one promotion at once - but that’s hardly much of a mood-killer. According to my Weezy app, delivery only costs £1.50 and will be on my doorstep in 13 minutes. Surely not?

I wait for a catch, but loud pink notification says my order is confirmed and 13 minutes later - almost to the second - a smiley 20-something in a pink Weezy sweater arrives at the door with three brown paper bags. How did he get here so quickly? “It’s a secret,” he says with a cheeky grin, already scuttling back towards his electric bike. “Got to go, but just for my records, how did you hear about us?”

Katie Strick road-tests London’s new ultra-fast grocery apps (Katie Strick)
Katie Strick road-tests London’s new ultra-fast grocery apps (Katie Strick)

The truth is I hadn’t, until a couple of weeks ago, but suddenly the posters for Weezy and its quirkily-named competitor Gorillas are everywhere: on the Tube and the sides of buses, on my doormat, all over my Instagram feed. Weezy and Gorillas aren’t the only ones. In the last few months, half a dozen colourfully-dressed rivals have been cropping up across the capital, racing to clip crucial seconds off each others’ times to be the first to deliver to customers’ doorsteps - if you’re lucky to live close enough to one of their micro-warehouses, or so-called “dark stores”, dotted on back streets around the city. The names sound more like cartoon characters than grocery apps: Jiffy, Zapp, Dija and Getir are among the others delivering in London so far (another, Fancy, offers a similar service in Birmingham, Leeds and other major UK cities, while new on-demand wine apps Wineapp and Drop both deliver a range of cool, quirky whites, reds and rosés to your door in under an hour - perfect for last-minute summer dinner parties).

Like supermarkets, the groceries on offer at these stores are varied and wide-ranging. Everything from Pringles and Flat Iron steaks to umbrellas, nappies and even lateral flow Covid tests are available for delivery from these companies. And to customers, they certainly peddle (pedal?) an enticing proposition. Jiffy promises to deliver in 15 minutes, with no delivery fee and no minimum spend, cheaper and faster than supermarket services such as Ocado, and you don’t have to book in advance. Supermarkets are playing catch-up: Ocado, has launched a new “Zoom” service promising delivery in 60 minutes, and Amazon is now delivering “same day” groceries (both have a minimum spend of £15).

Gorillas claims it is “faster than you”, with a delivery time of 10 minutes or less - the same as Dija, founded by former Deliveroo execs, which pledges three months of free delivery if the goods don’t arrive in that 10 minute time-slot.

Istanbul-based Getir promises “cold beer in minutes” (16, in my case), telling me I’ll get three complimentary Magnum Classics with whatever I order. When I reach the checkout, there’s an even better promotion: £15 off your first order as long as you spend £16, so that’s £1.23 for two tubs of hummus, two packs of Kettle Chips, a tub of Ben & Jerry’s and three Magnums. Truly, it would be mad not to.

So how do these businesses make any money and how on earth do they deliver in under 10 minutes? Clearly, the laziness economy pays. Despite razor-thin margins, the ultra-fast delivery market has attracted more than £9.8 million in investment since the start of the pandemic: Berlin-based Gorillas is Germany’s fastest ‘unicorn’ (a startup valued at $1 billion or more); Getir is valued at $7.5 billion and intends to float on the stock exchange within two years; and Zapp has raised $100m from investors including former Amazon UK boss Christopher North.

As for their currency, speed, it’s all down to geography. Unlike supermarkets, apps like Weezy and Gorillas don’t compete for expensive high street locations or have fancy stores with tills. Instead, they operate out of tightly-packed, convenience store-style warehouses on back streets or under railway arches, each serving a relatively small local radius to ensure lightning-fast delivery times.

 (Gorillas)
(Gorillas)

“It’s not like Uber or Deliveroo where riders might start on one side of London and finish on the other,” co-founder of Jiffy, Vladimir Kholyaznikov, tells me from his home in Notting Hill (not currently within his app’s radius, so he’s been given VIP status). “Our riders know their areas.” They take two or three orders at a time, and customers are never left with frustrating substitutions - when items run out of stock in store, that’s updated on the app.

On a visit to his dark store under a railway arch in Waterloo, I meet the riders for myself. “It’s exciting to be part of a new company,” says Bradley, a bearded ‘picker’ who left his job at Deliveroo and Uber Eats to ride for Jiffy. He’s now been promoted to packing bags in store and says he prefers the security of a stable contract. Unlike many takeaway startups, Jiffy and nearly all of its rivals employ their workers contractually, paying by the hour and offering annual leave and sick pay, with several offering perks (Jiffy has a partnership with Swiss running shoe brand On Running, to make its workers “the fastest out there”).

An order comes in through the speaker and Bradley springs to work, packing a trolley with sourdough bread, salad and washing tablets to pass to a rider waiting outside (items are arranged by popularity, with those in highest demand - generally alcohol - at the front, and a computer monitor by the door showing new orders). I expect it to feel frantic, with staff charging through the aisles, but the place is ordered and and relaxed - aside from the trains rolling overhead - with two orders coming in during the 30-minutes I’m inside.

 (Weezy)
(Weezy)

Bradley’s colleague, Waterloo’s operations manager Quaid Combstock, assures me it’s particularly quiet for a Thursday morning - perhaps it’s the wet weather - but calmer mornings are normal. “The busiest time of day is just after 5pm when people get home,” he says, remembering their busiest day yet: that sunny Sunday when England were playing in the Euros (cold beer was the top order, obviously).

He employs two riders in the morning and six in the evening, with seven at weekends and two or three packers at all times. “Supervisors can pack and ride, too, if we’re stretched,” he explains, recalling a recent team pub trip where so many orders came in they had to abandon their pints and jump on the bikes themselves.

For Combstock and his team, stores treat their staff like squads. There’s a “friendly rivalry” between warehouses - Waterloo is among the frontrunners for delivery teams, he insists, and Bethnal Green has some of the highest orders because it’s near Shoreditch.

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So what about their real rivals, I ask, nodding to competitor Getir, just metres away in the railway arch next door. Combstock smiles. His team and Getir’s Waterloo squad are booked to go paint-balling together next week and he insists the competition is good for them (I mention that Getir sells umbrellas and he tells me it’s a good idea - he’ll add it to his list of ideas). According to Combstock, some riders from rival companies even use Jiffy in their breaks because there’s no delivery fee.

Over Zoom, Jiffy’s founder Kholyaznikov is equally relaxed about such close competition. At this stage, all publicity is good publicity. “It’s creating the market,” he says, insisting he sees his main rivals as offline retailers, especially since many are beginning to join Jiffy at the hyper-local game: Ocado has reportedly partnered with a courier firm to test faster orders in London and last month Tesco announced it is launching Whoosh, a “rapid” delivery service ferrying groceries to customers within an hour.

 (Gorillas)
(Gorillas)

Demand is clearly growing in the on-demand grocery race, and like all modern convenience apps, the newbies are employing savvy marketing tactics to stay out in front. My Gorillas rider, a former personal trainer, has clearly been briefed that I’m a new customer and reels off the company’s well-rehearsed “welcome to the jungle” slogan as he hands me my paper bag and asks for a positive review. Gorilla(s) tactics. Later that day, my Zapp order, a single bottle of rose, arrives with a pack of £2 Candy Kittens sweets thrown in - a smart touch (and technically making me a profit, given the £1.99 delivery charge).

But it’s a misconception to think this new wave of apps is only used by tech-savvy, convenience-hungry millennials too lazy or drunk to leave the sofa, says Kholyaznikov. Yes, a high proportion are “party guys” who want booze and snacks, but their target is the mass market and even now, customers come from a widening range of demographics: dinner party hosts missing a key ingredients; parents in urgent need of emergency nappies; sick customers in need of quick medication without leaving the house.

Kholyaznikov says there’s a growing elderly and disabled contingent - if you can’t physically get to a shop, apps like his can be a lifesaver - and Combstock says Jiffy is increasingly popular among small businesses. According to his counterparts in Bethnal Green, one east London bakery regularly uses Jiffy to call in milk and pastries last-minute.

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Founders like Jiffy’s are also finding ways to support small businesses by stocking their products. Weezy prides itself on encouraging users to go local, stocking goods from butchers, bakers and greengrocers - from my home in south-west London, I’m offered fruit from New Covent Garden market, pastries come from The Old Post Office Bakery in Clapham and bacon from my local Balham butcher. Jiffy has similar plans in the pipeline, and all the apps have also made a commitment to sustainability. Gorillas guarantees carbon-neutral, zero-plastic deliveries where possible and most companies’ fleets are made up of pedal bikes and/or electric bikes and scooters.

But setting up shop has not all been smooth riding. In Germany, where Gorillas was founded, customers and riders took to the streets of Berlin last week to protest the “unfair termination” of a rider who was reportedly fired for being late to work. The company’s chief executive, Kagan Sumer, insisted that the firing had been a “difficult but necessary decision” and pledged to cycle to every city where the company operates to “meet and ride” with riders and learn.

Here in the capital, Gorillas and its competitors have been largely welcomed (”they can deliver a beer faster than many restaurants can take my order”, reads a tweet by one happy London customer), but there are also concerns from residents, with noise complaints from residents near warehouses on Hackney Road and pedestrians saying they’ve nearly been run down by riders “belting down” pavements in Teddington.

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So are ultra-fast deliveries bike crashes waiting to happen? “Our system is fast, our riders are not,” insists Getir’s UK manager Turancan Salur, firmly, when I ask him about safety on the roads. Apparently, his company’s technology system highlights when a rider is speeding or riding dangerously. “They have to follow the rules of the road and if they don’t, we actually part ways with them,” he says. “We’re very strict on this.”

After three days of trialling every on-demand app in my postcode, I run out of eggs and reach for my phone almost out of habit. It’s easy to see how addictive the convenience can become - so will they change the way we shop forever? Salur and Kholyaznikov both insist they won’t kill offline groceries entirely, but they have “disrupted” the market and will lessen the need for last-minute, begrudging runs to the corner shop for a forgotten ingredient.

Just like fashion retail, the founders believe they can work alongside offline grocery stores to offer greater choice going forward - ultra-fast apps for top-up shops during the week, and in-person trip to Tesco for those bigger items you want to see, touch and add to your trolley spontaneously. “A lot of it depends on mood,” says Salur. “Sometimes you want to go to a large store and discover products, sometimes you don’t want to have to deal with that so you do it online.” He expects some apps will die off due to competition, but a few key speed merchants will remain.

Finally, I ask about consumer expectations. Even after a week, receiving my shopping in 10-minute is already starting to feel normal - will customers expect deliveries to get faster, still, and is that even possible? Jiffy says it expects to shave more minutes off its delivery times as it opens more stores, and Getir says it already regularly delivers in less than 10 minutes - it’ll only get faster as processes speed up. This time next year, then, perhaps five minutes will feel normal. That’s what you call fast food.

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