Not so long ago we were approached by a large FMCG retail chain. The company wanted to create a truly innovative service: a “people’s” digital convenience store, which would work without sales halls, queues, and salespeople. And the WEZOM team built the entire IT ecosystem for such a store in an incredible three months. Anticipating the release, we want to tell you how such projects are implemented, and how they will affect retail in the not-too-distant future.
What is the DarkStore?
We are used to visiting shopping malls and supermarkets, as it is an integral part of our consumer culture. But going to the supermarket is not always like a family walk among beautiful shelves of goods. Often shopping is simply tiring and irritating: there are lines, there is a “race” to the checkout with carts, and there are cashiers in bad moods. From retailers’ perspective, traditional supermarkets also need to be optimized: too much money is spent on renting space, large staff, and other retail costs.
Businesses started looking for new approaches to retail, and they found them. One of the best ideas can be considered the concept of the DarkStore – a store without a real space, which relies on online sales and courier delivery. Basically, it’s something in between a typical online store and a food delivery courier service, like an Amazon. You place your order on the app or website, and the courier delivers it to your door in 15-20 minutes.
It is believed that the DarkStore format was invented in 2009 by British retailer Tesco. But then the idea was 10 years ahead of its time, and the niche of such stores was still small. Recently, the format has been reborn – the general availability of smartphones and the pandemic have made it more relevant than ever. Similar startups are now growing rapidly in the UK (Jiffy), Germany (Gorillas) and other countries around the world.
How we started creating a DarkStore
At the end of 2021, we had our first call with our new client – a huge retailer team. The retailer had already achieved impressive success, having built a network of a hundred FMCG stores across the country in just three years.
However, the client was not going to stop there and set an ambitious goal – to create an innovative DarkStore with products of daily demand, which would conquer the market.
The client considered 2022 as a turning point in retail when the business would start a startup race during the post-crisis economic recovery. He needed a new DarkStore platform as soon as possible. We are not just talking about an online store, but about a service with the shortest purchase cycle and super-fast delivery.
The key point: the customer must receive his order by courier in 15 minutes.
This can be achieved through the creation of an extensive network of small warehouse stores in the city limits, which overlap almost any delivery address. Such a system requires well-functioning logistics and a powerful digital ecosystem.
The project concept was detailed quickly: it required a website and a mobile application for e-commerce, as well as an application for couriers. These products had to be combined through a single DarkStore Backend and integrated with digital retail tools: 1C accounting, a customer management system (CRM) and a warehouse management platform (WMS).
Such a task could take a strong IT team more than a year. But based on our experience and expertise, we contracted to do it within three months. There was no time to speed up.
How the technology was chosen
Although the format of the service is innovative, technically DarkStore development does not require anything complicated. All solutions for creating DarkStores have been used in e-commerce one way or another for a long time, you just need to put them all together.
- The cross-platform mobile apps were made in Flutter, using BLoC, Hive and Dart.
- The backend is written in PHP 8.1 (Laravel + Octane), PosgreSQL and Redis are used for database management.
All these tools are familiar to our developers, including from experience working on products for e-commerce. This allowed us to speed up the development process many times over.
How communication was managed
This does not mean, however, that the team had nothing to do. On the contrary, deadlines were very tight, and the team decided to abandon the usual practice of working in sprints.
Breaking a three-month project into sprints did not make sense, and instead, we formed a common task board that needed to be distributed among specialists. And then we moved from stage to stage: drawing and design approval for each individual product, technical development, creating presentations, and managing quality control.
Such development required constant, daily communication between the team and the client. For efficiency and responsiveness the team constantly had to clarify something: to address issues on the integration of 1C and CRM, request access to resources and documents, to find out the details of the business logic. While developing, the WEZOM team and the product manager on the client side became one team. And this connection was maintained even after the war began, although not without difficulties.
Frequently, the set tasks turned out to be much more complicated than they were initially imagined. Knowledge of technology didn’t save the team from unexpected difficulties with the development of new modules, API integration, and third-party tools.
The biggest challenge was mobile development. The mobile app plays a central role in the dark store ecosystem, since the overwhelming majority of users will be using the service from their smartphones. The platform had to implement a complex ordering chain with various scenarios, and consider numerous interconnections with the company’s tools and databases. Integration of the API for Google Maps also caused certain difficulties, which required serious work on geolocation.
What do we have now
Despite the technical difficulties and the war, the development as a whole managed to meet the declared deadline. Due to obvious circumstances, the project has been put on pause, and its release is delayed for the future.
Nevertheless, as of today, the product is technically ready for release. It consists of three products:
- DarkStore website
- A mobile app for customers (DarkStore app)
- Courier app (DarkStore courier app)
Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Site successfully combines the capabilities of an online store and a corporate portal. On its pages, customers can view the product catalogue, form their cart and place an order and specify the delivery address. Availability of goods is tied to a specific darkstore with a specific delivery zone. In turn, couriers can get employment information on the site and apply for an interview. There is also a separate page for suppliers and distributors wishing to cooperate with the store.
The app is a good example of a modern DarkStore mobile service. In a nutshell, it provides the same features as the website, but also notifications. The experience of using the app is something between a classic online store and a food delivery service. After placing an order, the user can monitor the status of his order in real-time: from processing and assembly to final delivery.
The courier app is a simple and effective delivery tool that any employee can quickly learn without any problems. The platform gives the courier countless advantages: mapping, mobile notifications, simple accounting, and a personal account with a history of completed orders. The delivery card contains not only the address but also the amount and method of payment. The courier can immediately contact the recipient of the order and clarify the details.
All these products are units of the same chain, they work through a common backend. Third-party tools are also built into this chain: Google Card APIs and payment services, 1C accounting tools, CRM, and warehouse management.
The main objective of created ecosystem is to simplify users’ way to purchase and ensure that their order is delivered within 15 minutes.
The system may look simple, but this impression is deceptive. Many of its functions rely on complex logic, and their implementation has become a real challenge for the team.
For example, each darkstore is a location with its area of coverage from specific streets, which required point markings on the map. It is very likely that the coverage zones will change in practice, so it was important to edit them easily. In addition, each darkstore has its own current assortment, which is important to update in real time. It depends on which products right now can be found in the catalog of an individual user. Finally, darkstores in different cities and locations will differ in terms of opening hours and delivery costs, and the app needs to adequately present this logic.
Why are darkstores influential?
Of course, traditional retail with physical stores is not going to disappear. After all, it is important for brands to attract attention and ensure their offline presence, and customers appreciate the opportunity to see offline the goods they are interested in, and often consider shopping as a weekend pastime.
However, all this is more relevant for non-food retail (clothes, electronics, etc.) and to a lesser extent for everyday goods. If we are talking about a weekday trip to the store for vegetables for the soup, people are less willing to spend time on it. And that makes the darkstore format a very promising model. In addition, it has more powerful advantages:
- Resilience to social upheaval. The experience of the past three years has shown that the emphasis on business online provides him a good margin of safety in any situation. Physical stores can close because of another pandemic, or military threats. But online delivery in such situations continues to work as long as it is possible to provide its logistics.
- Reduced costs. A traditional supermarket requires renting a spacious space in a busy location, as well as equipment for the sales floor and merchandising. In contrast to supermarkets, darkstores can be equipped in compact and unpresentable warehouses (DarkStore warehouse) as there will be no customers, no guards, and cashiers. Even the electricity bill will be lower. This is an obvious opportunity to save money.
- Smart stock control. Darkstore vitally needs real-time visibility into each warehouse’s product inventory; without it, it’s difficult to ensure the adequacy of the assortment in the application and the speed of delivery. But it also helps the retailer dispose of products more rationally – to increase inventory turnover, and reduce losses among stock balances. This is especially relevant in FMCG, where goods have a limited shelf life.
- Simplicity of management. Traditional supermarket requires a large staff. At the same time, sales staff work in a stressful mode, sometimes torn between the layout of goods, control of the queue, and questions of individual customers, which is detrimental to service. At the same time, darkstore requires only an operator, a picker, and a few sorters of goods, who will not be distracted by customers. This avoids additional costs and makes much more efficient use of employees’ time.
The global economic crisis has slowed down the development of retail, but it certainly hasn’t stopped it. As the market revives, the online delivery market will grow rapidly, and we will see a number of such startups in the coming years.