What Are Dark Grocery Stores? (And Do You Have One in Your Neighborhood?)

updated Dec 23, 2019
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If you’ve been grocery shopping lately, you’ve definitely noticed the ever-more-crowded aisles. And no, it’s not just because #ChristmasIsComing. As online grocery shopping grows, we now share aisles with professional shoppers — those folks who pick up and deliver groceries for anyone shopping from the comfort of their home. 

I personally love the convenience of grocery delivery when it’s been A Week. I also appreciate that online grocery shopping is an absolute gift to some people who are mobility-limited or time-strapped. But the mix of regular shoppers and professional shoppers does change the vibe of going to the store, especially when one of you needs to stop and text the buyer to make sure it’s OK to sub the almond cherry gluten-free granola for the maple pecan.

Grocery stores are alert to this changing traffic pattern. Even grocery execs themselves hate fighting the traffic jams clogging aisles, according to CNN, who reported that one executive complained to Walmart’s U.S. Chief, Greg Foran, that he hates shopping on Sunday because it’s too hard to get up and down the aisles.

The solution for at least some companies? Dark grocery stores.

The first time I heard the term, I imagined that dining fad of a few years ago where you ate dinner in the dark. Have we really reached the tippy top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? was my first thought. Where we’re stumbling around darkened grocery stores? Thankfully, no.

What Are Dark Grocery Stores?

Dark grocery stores, by another name, are fulfillment centers for online grocery shopping. On the inside they have aisles like a traditional grocery store, but nobody from outside can peek in and all the windows are covered (hence, “dark”). I suppose the thought is, if we could see in, we’d just wander in to do our own shopping, only to be turned away?

While some stores are experimenting with microfulfillment centers — dedicated spaces separate from customers in their regular stores — and automation for fulfilling online orders, these dark grocery stores are an emerging trend, a grocery consulting firm said in the CNN report, with big players like Walmart getting in on the game with a 40,000-square-foot prototype in a former grocery store outside Chicago.

Dark stores can definitely be one solution to the over-crowded grocery aisle, but there will be some obstacles to overcome for the industry. I agree with the Reddit commenter who said a dark, covered-up store wouldn’t be appealing in their community. 

Think about it: A big, empty-appearing storefront isn’t exactly a good look in a neighborhood. And while nearby grocery stores can help with property values, I’m not so sure about the effect of an eyesore like a huge, blank building. Just because it’s busy on the inside doesn’t make the outside look any less bleak. I have to wonder, too, what neighborhoods companies will choose to house these unsightly operations in. I live in a food desert, and can imagine the insult upon injury if a dark grocery were to open up nearby.

But our appetite for the convenience of delivery only continues to grow: The percentage of customers in the U.S. who are buying groceries online ramped up from less than a quarter to more than a third — in just the past year — according to a report in trade pub Supermarket News

If we keep going at this rate, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a day when dark stores overtake the old-fashioned, go-to-the-store-and-DIY variety. 

What are your thoughts on dark grocery stores? Do you have one in your neighborhood? Discuss in the comments below!