Quick-commerce (q-commerce) startups are a growing part of the online grocery market. What does this mean for work in the retail sector?

Q-commerce retailers promise super-fast delivery times measured in minutes rather than hours, delivering from ‘dark stores’, a retail outlet or distribution centre that exists exclusively for online shopping.

In 2023 Digit researchers Rachel Verdin, Steve Rolf and Wil Hunt produced two policy studies exploring work in the emerging q-commerce sector, which were commissioned by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and Uni Europa.

The studies highlight how the emergence of q-commerce has the potential to disrupt existing business models in retail and e-commerce in the medium term. Q-commerce firms rode a wave of venture capital unleashed during the Covid-19 pandemic, focusing on growth over margin. However, as funds dry up, the precarious financial foundations of many q-commerce firms now raise serious questions about how the sector can find sustainable ‘paths to profitability’ – and the consequences of these shifts for the workers involved. Research with workers in the UK, Germany and Spain is ongoing to examine the consequences of this pivot to profit.

Method

The reports drew on desk research, analysis of available company financial data and in-depth qualitative interviews with a range of experts, industry stakeholders, and q-commerce workers in four firms across three countries (Germany, Spain and the UK).

Key findings

  • Despite adopting a direct employment model (in contrast to other parts of the on-demand sector where platform/gig work is common) work in the sector is often precarious.
  • Q-commerce firms are losing substantial amounts of money, and their venture capital backers increasingly demand ‘paths to profitability’.
  • Tightening financial conditions are putting a squeeze on workers, whose work is becoming more precarious, dangerous, and intense.
  • Despite numerous challenges there are opportunities for q-commerce workers to organise collectively to improve their conditions.

Researchers

University of Sussex Business School
University of Sussex Business School
University of Sussex Business School

Research outputs

Getting the goods: Trade unions and the strategy in the quick-commerce sector
Steve Rolf, Wil Hunt and Rachel Verdin (2023), FEPS Policy Study

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

Quick commerce – not turning a fast buck
Social Europe (2023)

Work insecurity: the high cost of ultra-fast grocery deliveries
EU Observer (2023)

Can gig economy work ever be good for its workers?
The Grocer (2023)

Dark stores: Are the riders squeezed for super-fast grocery delivery?
FEPS Talks (2023)