Back to the Dark Ages? Q-commerce, rapid retail and the changing landscape of retail work

Rachel Verdin, Steve Rolf, Wil Hunt and Sacha Garben (2023), FEPS Policy Study

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a boom in the online grocery market, with the emergence of new quick-commerce (q-commerce) startups delivering from “dark stores” and promising super-fast delivery times.

This policy study draws on desk research, interviews, and qualitative research with workers to provide insights into q-commerce startups, the business strategy of the rapid-delivery sector and its impact on work in Europe, including labour issues and policy implications.

The emergence of q-commerce demonstrates how digital platform technologies might upend business models in the retail industry in the medium term. Although q-commerce firms have an advantage over traditional retailers in providing faster delivery times, their business landscape is highly fluid and uncertain. The precarious financial foundations of q-commerce firms raise serious questions about the durability of the sector looking to discover a “path to profitability” and the consequences of these shifts for the workers involved.

Understanding the impact of rapid-delivery services on workers and the retail industry is crucial, given that retail is the largest private employer in most European economies.

The authors emphasise the need for careful attention to the business practices of q-commerce firms, their impact on the kind of work being done in retail, and the employment practices therein. Several recommendations are put forward for European policy. The report also provides a starting point for further research and policy development, including recruiting strategies for unions in the sector.

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