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Dark stores, or the uberization of cities

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After Ubereats or Deliveroo, shopping or alcohol delivery services for individuals abound in major cities. In Île-de-France, the proposals are skyrocketing and threaten the balance of small traders.

What would Paris be without its small corner grocery stores with small storefront fruit and vegetable stalls, open day and night from Monday to Monday? It is not a question of being “old-fashioned” to say that these small businesses should be listed as intangible heritage of humanity: this way of being able to count on Parisian grocers is an urban custom, in the same way as the ‘you buy your lunch in a New York food-truck. For several months, however, the balance of this economy of emergency shopping has been tormented by the arrival of “dark stores”. Ghost supermarkets that only deliver.

It must be said that the Covid crisis, which has locked everyone at home, has greatly upset the consumption habits of the French, a fortiori of city dwellers and Ile-de-France residents in particular. While the practice of drive and ” pedestrian drive has become commonplace (with increases of +46% between 2020 and 2021 across all brands), home delivery, offered by major brands such as Monoprix, exploded during the pandemic even though it is t is usually a paying proposition shunned by the French. The Monoprix and Franprix brands had even set up toll-free numbers allowing their customers to simply order a basket that would last them three or four days. The same goes for meal deliveries: 5 billion euros is the colossal turnover generated by home meal delivery in 2020, and which reveals market growth of 47% over two years ( 2018-2020), according to expert firm Food Service Vision. Habits that did not stop with the end of the pandemic: in total, 60% of French people have integrated this practice into their consumption habits, compared to only 40% before the crisis.

It is on this basis of new consumption habits that new delivery players have launched in the Paris region and in major cities, from 2020. They are called Cajoo, Flink, Gorillas, Getir but also Deliveroo and offer round-the-clock delivery services. But unlike the “dark-kitchens”, these restaurants which only exist online on delivery platforms and which use completely legal laboratories, these dark store brands operate spaces (especially shops) which are not not intended to be warehouses. And it is this loophole that the public authorities have decided to exploit to limit the expansion of its new start-ups in the ” quick trade“, as we say in the United States.

The sacrosanct urban plan

Paris has had to face the harmful consequences of Airbnb in recent years, the latest regulations, applicable this year, will force owners to convert shops at the foot of buildings into AirBnBs in the most touristic areas of the city. “In recent years”, faced with the tightening of rental rules in the capital, “a small number of investors have turned to the transformation of shops at the foot of buildings into AirBnBs”. Measures which aim to “protect small businesses and the soul of our neighborhoods”, commented Mr. Brossat. After Ubers, scooters and take-out deliveries with a more than dubious social model, dark stores represent a new adaptation challenge for municipalities.

In March, the city of Paris asked for the closure of 45 dark stores that were created without authorization. “Of 65 dark stores which were instructed by the town hall’s urban planning services following information feedback from Parisians, 45 are illegal”, specified at the time Emmanuel Grégoire, first deputy to the Town Hall of Paris in charge of urban planning. During a meeting with the actors of the quick trade, the city insisted on recalling the regulations in force. The stores that are in the viewfinder of the municipality do not comply with the Town Planning Code. “The Town Planning Code considers “dark stores” as warehouses. However, most operators have simply installed their sites in commercial premises without making a change of destination via a prior declaration and are therefore in violation, ”explains the city.

Problem: dark stores do not appear in this famous Town Planning Code, because it is still too recent an activity. Article R. 151-27 describes the possible destinations for a construction: agricultural and forestry operations, housing, trade and service activities, equipment of collective interest and public services and other activities of the secondary or tertiary sectors. The destination of the buildings is not insignificant, since it determines which types of property will be able to be rented by the dark stores as well as the type of associated lease. “These companies are in a gray area which creates a blur: they have the same activities as a company, but do not, in principle, welcome the public”, underlines to our colleagues from Maddyness, Laurent Schittenhelm, associate lawyer at Bryan Cellar Leighton Paisner (BCLP). The local urban plan of Paris provides, for example, that premises intended for commercial activity cannot “use more than one third of their total floor area for storage”. This means that in an area of ​​100 m2, only 33 m2 can be used to store products. Obviously this does not correspond to the activity of the dark stores. The latter could turn to premises intended for storage, but these are far too rare inside the ring road where they do not allow commercial activity (the self storage or furniture storage, for example). An alternative would then be to ask the lessor to change the destination of the premises. Impossible in Paris, because “the PLU of Paris prohibits the transformation of premises intended for commerce”, assures the lawyer.

Faced with the undeniable interest of city dwellers for this new mode of consumption and faced with the fear of seeing many shop windows closing in favor of this type of online business, the public authorities are forced to juggle between firmness and adaptability. If the town hall of Paris has imposed the closure of 65 illegal premises, it does not close the discussion: the services of the town hall, assured Emmanuel Grégoire, could help companies to “find more suitable places to settle”. Like underground car parks, which can be under-occupied for some. The mayor of Paris asks “dark stores” to work “to improve the urban integration of their activity and demonstrate that they are capable of providing a useful service by limiting negative externalities. “We can only hope that in the meantime, Parisians will find their way back to their little neighborhood grocery store, perhaps more expensive than the supermarket, but undeniably more charming than a blind window…

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