Joseph Skull, a black-clad British bicycle courier from the delivery company Gorillas, is looking for a parking space for the massive electric cargo bike he just used to carry a paper bag full of breakfast items. “They haven’t collected the rubbish yet – they often do,” he said Monday morning, pushing a bag of empty bottles aside.
The sidewalk opposite the branch of the German express delivery service in the Amsterdam district of De Pijp is blocked by Gorillas bicycles, overfilled rubbish bins and rubbish bins with discarded packaging material. The truck, which in the meantime comes with a few boxes of fruit, can not stand anywhere at all and is forced to stop in the middle of the roadway. The cars behind him just have to wait.
A few days later – on Friday – this Gorillas department on Gerard Douplein had to close by order of the municipality. According to the municipality, the distribution center did not fit into the zoning plan, and the procurement bids created a lot of inconvenience in the neighborhood. Gorillas’ objections to the proposed closure were ignored by the judge on Thursday.
Gorillas (motto: ‘faster than you) is a delivery service that claims to deliver groceries to your home within minutes of an online order. The company was founded by Kagan Sümer at the beginning of the pandemic in Berlin. In two years, Gorillas grew into a company with 15,000 employees and locations throughout Europe and the United States. Investors provided the company with huge start-up capital, and in part due to all the shutdowns, the need for fast home delivery seemed almost unlimited.
Until now. Gorillas are suddenly under fire on all sides. Neighbors are complaining about inconveniences, municipalities are trying to ban the service and investors are demanding, according to websites, that the company’s finances be sorted out. Aimed and Techcrunch loses between $ 60 and $ 90 million every month. Of the $ 1 billion “war chest” that the company had less than a year ago, only $ 300 million remain, according to tech websites. It has made Gorillas a symbol of the madness among venture investors, who in recent years have been provoked by ultra-low interest rates to invest billions in companies without a clear revenue model.
Gorillas is also a company for employees on steroids, say various (past and present) suppliers and employees of distribution centers in the Netherlands. From the conversations, a picture emerges of a company that is growing far too fast, and that the most basic aspects of running a delivery service – payroll, inventory management, bicycle maintenance, administrative processes, relations with governments – are not or hardly in order.
Extremely fast growth
The closure of the Gerard Douplein branch is more than a symptom of a young company’s growth. Behind the closed, white facade of the Gorillas building was the busiest distribution point for the delivery service in the Netherlands, where more than a thousand bags of groceries were packed and delivered every day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It is also the place just around the corner from Albert Cuypmarkt, where Gorillas’ international expansion began on Wednesday 16 December 2020 – in one of Amsterdam’s busiest locations, surrounded by dozens of restaurants, shops, market stalls and supermarkets. The area includes one Aldi, three Albert Heijns, one Dirk van der Broek, one Coop, two Jumboer and two major suppliers of organic goods.
Although almost all residents of De Pijp can be in a store within a minute, the idea of orders delivered within ten minutes caught on. The research agency GfK calculated in February this year that about 1 in 35 Dutch people sometimes use a flash delivery service. Young city dwellers in particular are given small groceries such as (sodas), chips and cigarettes delivered to their homes. Gorillas also sprinkled with discount codes, making the service attractive to students as well. They were delivered bottles of cola and sweets in the schoolyard.
As the Netherlands reopened after the closures, municipalities became more and more skeptical about the blessings of flash delivery, especially because of the inconvenience it causes in the residential areas where the distribution centers are located. Branches in Amsterdam, Leiden, The Hague and Utrecht, among others, were closed and permits blocked.
Economic development also reversed. The Flash delivery services all hoped that they could stay in the race longer than their competitors, which raised prices and made a profit at a later date. Rising interest rates make it increasingly difficult to find the money needed to sustain this struggle. And therefore, companies are forced to cut costs.
Gorilla’s competitor Zapp fired hundreds of delivery drivers via a Zoom call this week, leaving the Dutch market. This announcement followed shortly after the forced closure of a Zapp branch near Gerard Douplein. Gorillas recently left Italy, Spain, Belgium and Denmark and fired 300 workers in Berlin. The company says it has no plans to leave the Netherlands yet.
Read more about the firings at Gorillas and other speed cameras: “Sentiment around start-ups has changed radically”
The staff had for a long time anticipated the problems with the delivery service. Gorillas changed under the eyes of a cheerful and small-scale start-up to a chaotic and hurried employer that increased the pressure on employees to work faster and cheaper. “It started as the ideal job – paid cycling through the city with a team of young people,” says Norbert Faller, one of the first employees of the De Pijp department. “But it quickly became clear that nothing was working properly.”
The biggest source of employee frustration: the paycheck. All employees that NRC has spoken to are aware of the problems. Unpaid overtime, uncontrollable amounts on payslips and staff still owing money from Gorillas after their departure.
“I got a different amount each month,” says Faller, who worked for Gorillas for over a year. “Our paycheck is so complicated that it took management half an hour during a meeting to explain to us what it said.” Lucas Mendes, a Brazilian who worked for Gorillas for eight months as head of the distribution center at Watergraafsmeer in Amsterdam, confirms the picture. “All payments were late and wrong. Every month I had to check my salary. You start to distrust the company.”
And there are several problems. Trucks loading and unloading, and cyclists who are extremely busy, cause inconvenience to local residents. Gorillas also produce a huge amount of waste: from packaging materials to redundant stocks, which are not properly adapted to the needs of the consumer due to a poorly functioning purchasing system. “We didn’t have enough space, so cartons of milk stood out of the fridge all day,” Faller says.
The constantly changing workforce, which meant that employees were constantly in doubt about what exactly needed to be done, was also problematic. “Then we got a new manager who had never been to a branch before,” Faller says. ‘Or suddenly a crew of Indians and Bangladeshis were at work, only one of whom spoke little English. If they got lost with an order, it was impossible to communicate with them. ”
In addition, they had to go out with unsafe bicycles, employees say. They complain about non-functioning brakes, missing phone holders and non-waterproof clothing. The exact number of accidents involving speed cameras is not known, but all Gorillas employees know a story about a colleague who ended up in the hospital due to a defective bike.
Such as Luke Ridgeway, an Australian who worked at Gorillas in Utrecht last year and had an accident after only four days on the bike. “There was no phone holder, so I was forced to hold my phone,” he says. “I looked at it to navigate and was hit by a car. I broke a rib. Three days later I heard that I had been fired. The reason: the computer records showed that I had been absent for a few days in a row. The system understood not that I did not show up because of a car accident. ”
Understanding and patience
Sadik Cevik, director of Gorillas for the Netherlands, told during a minor media offensive at The 1st and news hour that employees receive training that guarantees the safety of cyclists on the streets.
Australian Luke Ridgeway laughs out loud when asked about it. “Education? There is no training. You just cycle behind a colleague during a feeding trip, and then you start,” he says. Norbert Faller: “You ask a random rider which should not deliver for a while: explain to the new one how it works. That’s the training. Everyone on the shop floor is very helpful, but we were just too busy for that. “
Another argument Gorillas like to come up with when confronted with complaints from local residents and employees is the company’s short history. That kind of hassle is part of starting a business, they say. If the outside world has a little more understanding and patience, it all goes by itself.
This is what Reinier van Velden says, who after a long career as a lawyer and lawyer for two and a half months has looked after Gorilla’s legal situation in the Netherlands. After the summary case on Monday between his employer and the municipality, he talks about “growing pains”, and emphasizes that “the will is there to do better”. He gives a personal example: he received a salary, but no payslip. “On the HR side, the system sometimes fails. Then you call and it will be resolved. ”
For Joseph Skull and the dozens of colleagues who will now be leaving the place at Gerard Douplein, we will have to wait and see. “We will move some of the shares to other locations,” their Gorillas manager sent an email after announcing the closure. “I can assure you that everyone keeps their jobs. The trip is not over.†
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on June 25, 2022