The art of dark storage for micro-fulfilment

Edward Hutchison, managing director at BITO Storage Systems, shines the light on the emergence of dark stores for the new breed of dynamic micro-fulfilment operators.

Imagine, the big match has got to half time and there’s no more beer in the fridge. Or, right in the middle of cooking for a dinner party you realise an essential ingredient is missing.

Going to a shop isn’t convenient, so what do you do? It’s a dilemma that a growing group of companies have geared up to solve by delivering essential groceries within ten minutes of an order being taken via a smart phone app. Not only will the order arrive within the promised time, but it will also be in the quantity and condition requested – the beer, for example, cool enough to drink during the second half.

Remember thinking next day delivery was impressive service? Rapid delivery operators are hitting this ultra-high service level by fulfilling orders from compact and strategically located micro fulfilment centres, known as ‘dark stores’ due to the fact that they are often former traditional retail establishments. Groceries are picked from shelving straight into a sustainable carrier bag for despatch by non-polluting bike riders.

It is among the most exciting developments in retail emerging from the pandemic into everyday practice. Numerous players promising rapid delivery are snapping up old retail establishments, small warehouses and many other types of properties to locate dark stores as close as possible to customers to enable the rapid delivery promise to be fulfilled. The other key ingredient to making 10-minute delivery possible is equipping the dark stores with the right storage and order picking equipment.

Standard adjustable shelving is a popular solution for dark stores because operators can easily reconfigure the shelves themselves to meet changing needs. This is important because this new breed of fulfilment operator is unlikely to have the racking expertise often found in traditional grocery warehousing, where reconfiguration is frequent. Simplifying things also makes it easier to supply new sites, which need only re-order, for example, bays in modular units, thus avoiding the need to calculate the length of the run and the configuration.

While these operations are utilising relatively straightforward shelving today, as they develop their operations, they will require the support of a broader mix of storage and order picking solutions. Such systems will provide a crucial means to gain competitive edge in a highly competitive market. In addition to shelving, dark stores require pick and pack desks, picking trolleys, plastic containers, labelling, cupboards and lockers.

Having a one stop supplier, such as BITO, is an important consideration because these, often new, micro fulfilment companies are focused on moving their business forward and do not want to spend valuable time contacting a multitude of different providers. In keeping with their service ethos, these companies do not hang about when it comes to fitting out a dark store. This often means installation of storage systems commences just a week after an order.

Given that locations are mostly urban, delivery of storage equipment for installation generally requires early delivery and rapid off-loading – as is the case with stock for store replenishment. BITO has successfully carried out many of these kinds of installations across the country, including numerous sites in London. Servicing installations for dark stores requires investment in stock, service levels and procedures.

It is not straightforward. In fact it is almost unique and few companies in this industry have the stock range and aptitude for meeting the challenge. As we have seen from other e-commerce developments, rapid grocery delivery companies are likely in time to require regional distribution centres of their own, allowing them to benefit from efficient procurement and logistics.

It is important for this new band of fulfillers to have a storage equipment partner with the expertise and experience they can rely on, they can work with and one that can supply everything they need now – and for their future development.