Are dark stores the future of grocery shopping?

June 28, 2022

dark store

With so much innovation, we’re arguably living during the most exciting era of grocery shopping. But will the future of grocery shopping feature cashier-less stores, drone delivery, or dark stores? 

In this post, we’ll look at the past, present, and future of grocery shopping and explain more about the dark store concept.

A short history of shopping innovation

In 1916, entrepreneur Clarence Saunders introduced the self-service grocery store Piggly Wiggly. The concept was unheard of: people would walk between the aisles and pick products themselves!

Before this, customers presented their shopping lists to clerks, who would then collect or weigh out goods.

The concept was so alien to customers that Saunders had to take out newspaper ads and host an opening ceremony with gifts, a beauty contest, and a brass band just to attract people.

These self-service grocery stores produced many ideas we now take for granted, like checkout stands, elaborate store layouts, individually price-marked items, and shopping trolleys. 

They also sped up the evolution of branded packaging and advertising.

The future is now

Let’s look at some of the most recent innovative grocery store features — many of which are now routinely used. 


Self-checkout can be traced back to the first vending machines of the 1930s. Clarence Saunders again gets a notable mention with his inventions: the automated store Keedoozle and the predecessor to self-checkout, Foodelectric. 

The global self-checkout system market is expected to grow 13,3% annually from 2022 to 2030. In some countries, it’s already the preferred payment method (53,2%) and is especially trendy amongst Gen Z and millennials (61%).

Cashier-less stores

Amazon opened its first cashier-less Amazon Go store in 2018. You need the Amazon app to enter the store, which has turnstiles that scan a QR code generated on the app. The app is linked to your Amazon account and its payment method. 

The store uses computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusion to register purchased products. The concept is still young, but there are plenty of rumours about massive expansion.

Grocery pickup lockers

Grocery pickup took off during the coronavirus pandemic and has remained popular. Stores offer in-store pickup and curbside pickup options. 

Retail companies have partnered with technology companies to offer locker or kiosk pickup. The pickup lockers might be directly outside the physical store or in other residential areas.

Delivery robots and drones

Companies like Starship already have wheeled robots delivering groceries and takeaway. 

They’re an alternative to delivery drones that may become a standard delivery method any day now.

Dark stores

Sainsbury’s, the second-largest chain of supermarkets in the UK, opened the world’s first dark store in the early 2000s. 

But the store was ahead of its time and was soon closed due to low popularity. Now, dark stores are making a comeback. The number of dark stores is forecast to grow 750% globally this decade.

What is a dark store?

Behind this somewhat intimidating term is simply a warehouse specialising in online shopping. 

Dark stores cater directly to fast and convenient delivery and don’t offer in-store shopping. 

Most dark stores sell groceries and offer curbside pickup as well as delivery. With the help of digitisation, automation, and optimisation, dark stores offer convenient online grocery shopping and rapid delivery.

pickers in a dark store

Benefits of dark stores

Self-checkout is handy, but you still need to visit a physical store to get your items. And though pickup lockers may be nearby, dark stores deliver direct to your door. 

Some cashier-less stores offer delivery, but generally not as fast as dark stores. And drones and robots can’t currently carry as large amounts as couriers.

Because of these advantages (and since we know a thing or two about dark stores), we’ll take a closer look at why you might want to get your next grocery delivery from a dark store!

Fast shopping

Traditional grocery stores are designed to keep you in-store longer, so you buy more. 

Dark stores have a compact and optimised layout with no in-store shoppers to contend with – this means faster packing times. 

Plus, automatisation prevents any delays or mistakes. And that all means shopping bags arriving at your door as quick as you can say “dark store”.

Fast delivery

Let’s take Bolt Market — our super-fast grocery delivery service — as an example.

Making a Bolt Market order through the Bolt Food app creates a chain of events in which various parts work together to get your order to you. 

Our software alerts nearby couriers to arrive at the exact time your order’s packed. This ensures fast delivery and keeps your groceries at an optimal temperature.

Broader reach

While supermarkets are usually located in busy city centres or the outskirts of town, dark stores can be placed in residential areas. Lower property costs in suburban areas can help keep prices competitive while offering a convenient shopping experience. 

Residential locations also support super-fast delivery, improved distribution, and a broader reach.

Greater selection

With no need to accommodate in-store customers, dark stores can be far more efficient with space. 

They can thus offer a more extensive product selection than traditional grocery stores of the same size.

Better product availability

Never again drive to a store only to find that they don’t have that one vital ingredient you needed. 

A precise and real-time inventory system is one of the features that makes dark stores so efficient. 

With a clear and up-to-date overview of stock (and with no shoppers in-store), discrepancies are extremely rare.

Time saved

Have you ever dreamed of having a personal shopper like the Hollywood stars?

Well, now you can! Bolt Markets’ experienced personal shoppers (or pickers) are integral to our super-fast grocery delivery service.

No more searching for groceries in a supermarket; leave it to the professionals. And in addition to your groceries, you also bought yourself some free time!

Contact-free shopping

The COVID-19 pandemic made us all reassess our relationship with personal safety and space. 

Many people don’t want to go back to crowded supermarket queues and prefer to continue grocery shopping online. 

Dark store delivery and curbside pickup are perfect for contactless grocery shopping.

Easy budgeting

Once again, it was Clarence Saunders who introduced a shopping feature we’re all aware of — placing sweets near checkouts to promote additional sales. 

But you don’t have to worry about emotional purchases when shopping for groceries online! 

If you really want some sweets, you’ll need to go to that section in the app to buy them — which will make you think twice.

Are dark stores the future of grocery shopping?

With every innovation, there’s always some resistance and hesitancy to begin. But as you can see, society’s largely embraced self-service stores and self-checkout and will likely adopt other new features in time.

While it’s hard to say which shopping method will prevail, it’ll be the option that offers maximum flexibility and the freedom of choice that customers crave.

What’s certain is that dark stores will continue developing online shopping features and automation to optimise the customer experience. 

And data-driven approaches will continue to help offer more personalised experiences to meet customers’ ever-changing demands and desires.

If you’d like to get your groceries delivered fast without all that in-store hassle, check out Bolt Market.

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