As Indians expect groceries in 10 mins, delivery agents struggle

Delivery agents speed on their bikes, take wrong turns, risk their lives – all to deliver groceries in 10 minutes.

As Indian startups promise to deliver groceries in 10 minutes, delivery agents suffer [File: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg]

Bengaluru, India–Lately, Shaik Salauddin’s phone has been ringing off the hook. Delivery workers from around India have been calling this founder of a gig and platform workers’ union to share their grievances – some had accidents while trying to deliver groceries within the stipulated time, a few are in trouble with the traffic police and some others need help claiming their health insurance at hospitals.

“Last few months, I have been getting at least four to five calls daily,” Salauddin told Al Jazeera, flipping through his diary where he scribbles details about his calls. The recent rise of instant grocery delivery services in several cities has led to an increase in the number of accidents among other problems, he says. To help resolve the problems of the more than three million gig workers across India, Salauddin last year started Telangana Gig and Platform Workers Union.

“Just last week, a Grofers [now known as Blinkit] delivery worker called me after he got into a minor accident and couldn’t deliver the package,” and the company locked him out of his account where all delivery orders are placed, banning him from work, said Salauddin. “On what basis are they giving this five to 10-minute grocery delivery service? When it’s not an essential service, why are these companies making so much noise and making delivery boys compete with each other leading to health, safety and security risks?”

The Indian grocery delivery space has seen a significant shift in the last six months with an explosion of 10-minute delivery startups. Y Combinator-backed Zepto, which is operated by KiranaKart Technologies Pvt Ltd, launched more than a year ago with this ultra-fast delivery offer (their app shows groceries rocketing around), while SoftBank-backed Grofers rebranded itself at Blinkit in December with an aim to enter the instant delivery market. Not to be left behind, food delivery firm Swiggy’s Instamart shortened its delivery times to match these timelines and deliver groceries within 20 to 30 minutes.

The burden of all of this falls on the already overworked delivery workers who typically have to make a certain number of deliveries in a day to earn the bonus companies offer them. In their attempt to make it within the ambitious promised time, delivery agents often end up taking risks including speeding, taking wrong turns in case it shortens the distance they need to cover or parking illegally. In the process, they not only risk their own lives, but often run afoul of police.

5km in 10 minutes

Kailash, a delivery agent in Bengaluru, asked for his name to be changed to avoid getting into trouble with Zepto, the company he has been delivering groceries for since October. His biggest gripe with the 10-minute grocery delivery startup is that it has increased the delivery radius from three to five kilometres, he said.

“How is it possible to ride 5km and deliver groceries within 10 minutes?” he said. “Even after riding fast and jumping signals, reaching the destination within that time is impossible – especially in a (congested) city like Bangalore.”

Delivery riders for Zomato and Swiggy, wait to collect orders outside a restaurant in Mumbai, India
These delivery startups are setting up mini-warehouses around the city to quickly get groceries to customers [File: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg]

Kailash already has two traffic violation tickets worth 500 rupees each, an expense that has to come out of his pocket. Many of his colleagues, he says, have ended up having minor accidents in their race to deliver within the ultra-short time period. He clarifies, though, that “it’s the customer who is usually more strict about this delivery time and not the company”.

Stanford University dropouts Aadit Palicha and Kaivalya Vohra founded grocery delivery business KiranaKart in December 2020. Last year they pivoted their business model to deliver groceries in 10 minutes and rebranded it as Zepto. It has since built micro-warehouses, so-called dark stores, that are spread across the city to aid these instant deliveries in some of the top cities they operate in including Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai in the south of India as well as in the capital, Delhi, with plans to expand to other cities soon.

A lot of that expansion has been funded by venture capitalists that have poured in money including as recently as December when $100m was raised in a round led by Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund, valuing the business at $500m. That capital came on the heels of $60m it raised in November from US fund Glade Brook Capital and others.

Zepto is not the only one raising funds for this business. Swiggy, too, has earmarked $700m for expanding its quick delivery service, while Google-backed hyperlocal platform Dunzo Digital Pvt Ltd raised $240m from retail giant Reliance Retail two months ago to double down on quick commerce.

Wrong turns, delays, penalties

Meraj, who also asked for his name to be changed, is a 21-year-old delivery worker in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad where he has been delivering food and groceries for Swiggy for the past couple of years. He delivers about 10-15 orders each day, earning close to $8. Three weeks ago, his impressive 4.7 out of 5 rating declined to a 3.2 because he delivered the groceries in 45 minutes instead of the promised 20 minutes.

The mini-warehouse where he went to pick up the groceries was packed with other delivery agents and “was so crowded that I had to wait for almost 30 minutes to pick up the package,” he said. “And in a hurry to deliver because the customer kept calling me, I took a wrong turn and that’s (gotten) me a penalty of 1,000 rupees ($13).” He says many of his friends who deliver groceries in Hyderabad face similar issues.

A Swiggy spokesperson told Al Jazeera via email that even as their delivery times have reduced, they do not compromise on delivery fleet safety. “Swiggy Instamart always shares a range with the customer. This range can vary depending on the location of the customer and the time of the day and our compliance levels on this promise is very high,” said the spokesperson. “However, this promised delivery time is not shared with the partner. They are also not penalised for any delay in delivery.”

Zepto and Blinkit did not respond to Al Jazeera’s queries.

Of the $5.5bn in online grocery sales in India in 2021, about 13 percent came from the instant delivery market as customers shift from large monthly purchases to daily and weekly orders, according to data from RedSeer Management Consulting. This segment is pegged to grow 10 to 17 times to $5bn by 2025.

While this trend of delivering groceries within minutes is a global phenomenon with Gorillas in Germany, Glovo in Spain, Zapp in London and Getir in Turkey promising to deliver groceries in minutes, such a service does not really serve a purpose in India, experts say.

Quick commerce is a “VC-backed (venture capitalist-backed) trend,” said Aditi Surie, a gig economy researcher and a consultant with Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bengaluru. “It found more utility in Europe because the retail infrastructure is poor, but India doesn’t have a retail distribution problem, we don’t have food deserts in India – so there isn’t a need for 10-minute deliveries here.”

Apart from adding pressure on the delivery agents, the trend, should it continue at its current speed, has the potential of changing the metropolitan retail landscape as customers turn to an increasing number of dark stores for their needs rather than their neighbourhood shops, she added.

It is 10pm on a Wednesday and Salauddin continues to field calls from his association workers. “A delivery worker in Hyderabad was beaten up by a customer because he didn’t shut the door properly. Now the police are asking the delivery worker to compromise,” said Salauddin. “Why should he compromise?”

Source: Al Jazeera