Europes quick-commerce startups are overhyped: Lessons from China More than 10 companies currently compete across Europe with an instant grocery delivery business model. Half of them were established in 2020, the year of the pandemic. These companies have raised more than $2 billion to date. Existing and well-funded online food-delivery service players like Delivery Hero are also joining the race by launching dedicated grocery offerings. However, if lessons from the world’s largest online grocery market, China ($400 billion), matter, then it’s clear that instant delivery is not the magic bullet to crack the dominance of Europe’s incumbent supermarket chains in the overall $2 trillion-plus flat market. Instead, China’s quick-commerce equivalents (like Dingdong Maicai, Miss Fresh and Meituan Maicai) compete alongside a wealth of other online grocery models (such as Pinduoduo, JD’s Super and Alibaba’s Taoxianda), which have helped bring total market penetration to 20% and beyond. Quick commerce suffers from narrower profit margins compared to competing models and is addressing lower consumer demand in China than anyone in the West is expecting it to achieve in Europe and the U.S. If the performance of online grocery platforms in China (a market five to seven years ahead of Europe in terms of online retail) is anything to go by, a range of B2C business models would be more likely to displace the traditional grocery retailers. Third-time luck for quick commerce? The idea of ordering groceries online and having them delivered to consumers in less than an hour is nothing new. Back in the heyday of the dot-com bubble, a company attempted to do just that: Kozmo.com. Founded in 1998, it raised more than $250 million (around $400 million in today’s dollars) from investors, promising to deliver food, among other items, to consumers within an hour, while charging no delivery fees. In 1999, it had revenues of $3.5 million and a loss of $1.8 million. However, in 2001, the business was shut down by its board after the company could not make the business model work at scale. Some 15 years later, another company had a go. Gopuff was established in Philadelphia in 2013 and originally targeted students. What started out as a hookah delivery service soon expanded into a much broader convenience store offering and delivered to customers in approximately 30 minutes. Gopuff was most recently valued at $15 billion after raising a total of $3.4 billion — 75% of which occurred in the past 12 months. Last year, Gopuff grew revenues from around $100 million to $340 million. Kozmo.com went out of business after just three years. Meanwhile, Gopuff was turned down by several VCs in its early days, and it wasn’t until the pandemic that it saw a rapid acceleration in fundraising. Little did teams at either company know that they would later become the inspiration for a whole generation of founders in Europe. Europe’s $2B instant-grocery gamble Has anything fundamentally changed in the 20 years since Kozmo.com? Indeed, we’ve seen little technological progress that would hugely affect the operations of an instant commerce business. However, there have been much larger shifts in consumer habits. Firstly, the number of global internet users has skyrocketed (from below 500 million to beyond 4 billion), and mobile internet has taken over. Secondly, demand for online grocery delivery has grown significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as consumers have preferred to make retail purchases from home for safety reasons. Thirdly, consumers are now accustomed to paying fees for delivery services, typically around $2 per order, which Kozmo notoriously did not do. While many online grocery business models exist, the instant grocery, quick-commerce approach has been the favorite of European entrepreneurs and VCs over the past 18 months. The model itself, also referred to as q-commerce, is not that hard to understand. Companies maintain a small product offering of around 1,000–2,000 SKUs that consumers would otherwise find in convenience or drug stores. These products are purchased directly from brands or through distributors and are stored in self-operated microwarehouses close to customers’ locations. Marketing tactics are aggressive, often employing vouchers for first-time users of up to $12 (50% of an average shopping basket), and many startups offer their products at supermarket price or even at a discount of 10%–15%. Delivery usually happens by bicycle, e-bike or scooter, within 10-30 minutes of an order being placed, for a fee of around $2 with no minimum order value. Companies like Getir from Istanbul (total funding: $1 billion, last valuation: $7.5 billion) and Gorillas from Berlin (total funding: $335 million, last valuation: $1 billion) are leading the way. When Gorillas announced its $290 million Series B in March 2021, it became the fastest European startup to achieve unicorn status (nine months after launch). The company is already rumored to be seeking Series C financing at a $2.5 billion valuation. There are more than 10 companies across Europe with more or less the same business model. Those include the 2020-established Flink (Germany-based, $300 million raised), Zapp (U.K.-based, $100 million raised), Dija (U.K.-based, $20 million raised and just acquired by Gopuff), Jiffy (U.K.-based, $7 million raised) and Cajoo (France-based, $6 million raised). There is also JOKR, which was started by the founder of Foodpanda. JOKR was only established in Q1 2021, but right after incorporation raised one of the largest ever initial seed rounds (rumored to be $100 million) and subsequently a $170 million Series A in July to bring the model to Europe, Latin America and the U.S. Likewise, companies coming from food delivery have pushed further into this space and received additional funding in recent months, notably Delivery Hero through Dmart and Glovo through SuperGlovo, following role models in the U.S., such as DoorDash. Does instant grocery stand a chance of becoming profitable? As these companies approach later-stage financing sometime in the future, questions will be asked about the path to profitability in an industry of notoriously thin margins. Indeed, this is an uncomfortable truth that hasn’t changed since the early days of Kozmo.com. The available figures show that old patterns are repeating. Gopuff recently reported an EBITDA of negative $150 million on $340 million in revenue (EBITDA margin: -45%). Furthermore, an analysis by the German business monthly Manager Magazine concluded that Gorillas was operating at negative unit economics of -6%. Additional costs, such as overhead and technology, might push this number up significantly further.
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