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France clamps down on delivery depot 'dark stores'

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By Hugh Schofield

BBC News, París

Getir deliverer on scooter

Image caption,

City-centre depots proliferated through France after Covid popularised online food shopping.

France has taken steps to outlaw so-called dark stores – city-centre food depots used for instant home deliveries ordered over the internet.

Faced by growing protests from local people as well as city authorities, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has decreed that the stores be classified as warehouses, rather than as shops – meaning that in Paris and other cities most will probably be forced to close.

Run by half a dozen competing companies such as Gorillas, Cajoo, Getir, Flink and Gopuff, “dark stores” have proliferated in France as elsewhere over the last two years after Covid confinement popularised internet food shopping.

Advertising in Paris urges householders to get their food delivered in less than 10 minutes – or “quicker than a double by Benzema”, referring to the French football star. A campaign by Cajoo shows “Alex” doing his shopping by smartphone while sitting on the lavatory.

But residents of buildings where “dark stores” have replaced pre-existing grocery shops are angry about noise from early morning lorries and the disruption caused by squads of deliverers on electric bicycles and scooters.

City officials – who spent millions to safeguard the high street against out-of-town shopping centres – are worried that the new threat from “quick commerce” will drain life from public spaces and hasten the trend to an “atomised” society of solitary consumers.

“We can’t sleep any more,” said Samira, who has launched a petition against a “dark store” in her building in the 17th arrondissement of Paris.

“There is constant scooter noise, and the drivers hang outside till one in the morning, smoking weed and urinating on the street,” she added.

Typically “dark stores” – of which there are about 80 in Paris – present a blank front to the street, with just the name of the company on a frosted window. But inside are shelves of commonly bought goods, which are stacked into bags and handed to waiting couriers.

The public has no access, and there is no possibility of buying the goods inside except by ordering over the internet.

Paris City Hall has tried for months to control the spread – but with limited success. Officials complain of legal loopholes which the operators have been able to exploit, and of fines too meagre to have an impact.

But after the capital joined forces with other cities like Lyon, Nice and Montpellier, their combined pressure this week convinced the government to clarify town planning laws and make it easier for municipalities to shut down “dark stores”.

“Once this decree is finalised, there will be no ambiguity. Dark stores will be officially designated as warehouses, not as shops, which means local mayors will have powers to act if they choose,” said Small Businesses Minister Olivia Grégoire after a meeting with city officials from across France.

“This is not just a question of noise and traffic disruption. It’s a question of society,” said Camille Augey, a deputy mayor of Lyon.

“We need to ask ourselves what we want. Does every need have to be immediately satisfied regardless of external consequences? Do we really need that packet of pasta or bottle of shampoo at 11 o’clock at night? Can it really not wait until the morning?”

“We managed perfectly well before quick commerce, didn’t we?” she added.

None of the “dark store” operators contacted by the BBC would give an interview. In a statement Gorillas said that it brought “dynamism to town centres – creating jobs but also new outlets for local producers”.

It said it would need time to study the government’s new decree before reacting.

The separate phenomenon of “dark kitchens” – diner-less restaurants where meals are prepared for delivery – will also be affected by the new government policy, though it remains unclear exactly how.

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