Why restaurant food delivery is more sustainable than grocery delivery

I’ve ranted a fair bit about both grocery and restaurant delivery on this blog. I’ve criticised the former on grounds that it incurs both inventory and retail transportation costs, and the latter because availability of inventory information is a challenge.

In terms of performance, grocery delivery companies seem to be doing just fine while the restaurant delivery business is getting decimated. Delyver was acquired by BigBasket (a grocery delivery company). JustEat.in was eaten by Foodpanda. Foodpanda, as this Mint story shows, is in deep trouble. TinyOwl had to shut some offices leading to scary scenes. Swiggy is in a way last man standing.

Yet, from a fundamentals perspective, I’m more bullish on the restaurant delivery business than the grocery delivery business, and that has to do with cost structure.

There are two fundamental constraints that drive restaurant capacity – the capacity of the kitchen and the capacity of the seating space. The amount of sales a restaurant can do is the lower of these two capacities. If kitchen capacity is the constraints, there is not much the restaurant can do, apart from perhaps expanding the kitchen or getting rid of some seating space. If seating capacity is the constraint, however, there is easy recourse – delivery.

By delivering food to a customer’s location, the restaurant is swapping cost of providing real estate for the customer to consume the food to the cost of delivery. Apart from the high cost of real estate, seating capacity also results in massive overheads for restaurants, in terms of furniture maintenance, wait staff, cleaning, reservations, etc. Cutting seating space (or even eliminating it altogether, like in places like Veena Stores) can thus save significant overheads for the restaurant.

Thus, a restaurant whose seating capacity determines its overall capacity (and hence sales) will not mind offering a discount on takeaways and deliveries – such sales only affect the company kitchen capacity (currently not a constraint) resulting in lower costs compared to in-house sales. Some of these savings in costs can be used for delivery, while still possibly offering the customer a discount. And restaurant delivery companies such as Swiggy can be used by restaurants to avoid fixed costs on delivery.

Grocery retailers again have a similar pair of constraints – inventory capacity of their shops and counter/checkout capacity for serving customers. If the checkout capacity exceeds inventory capacity, there is not much the shop can do. If the inventory capacity exceeds checkout capacity, attempts should be made to sell without involving the checkout counter.

The problem with services such as Grofers or PepperTap, however, is that their “executives” who pick up the order from the stores need to go through the same checkout process as “normal” customers. In other words, in the current process, the capacity of the retailer is not getting enhanced by means of offering third-party delivery. In other words, there is no direct cost saving for the retailer that can be used to cover for delivery costs. Grocery retail being a lower margin business than restaurants doesn’t help.

One way to get around this is by processing delivery orders in lean times when checkout counters are free, but that prevents “on demand” delivery. Another way is for tighter integration between grocer and shipper (which sidesteps use of scarce checkout counters), but that leads to limited partnerships and shrinks the market.


It is interesting that the restaurant delivery market is imploding before the grocery delivery one. Based on economic logic, it should be the other way round!

Why Grofers is not a sustainable business

When I meet acquaintances for “gencus” nowadays, one of the things we somehow end up talking about is the startup world and inflated valuations of some Indian tech-enabled startups. The favourite whipping boys in any such discussions are food delivery companies such as Swiggy or TinyOwl and grocery delivery startups such as Grofers.

All three aforementioned companies have raised insane amounts of money and are making use of these insane amounts of money to poach employees at inflated valuations. They are also launching significant “above-the-line” advertising campaigns making use of the funds they are flush with. Yet, there is one fundamental concept that indicates that these companies are not likely to go far.

The whole idea of e-commerce is that you trade inventory costs for transportation costs. In “traditional” offline retail, transportation costs are low, since everything is transported in bulk, up until the retail store. In exchange for this, there are significant inventory costs, since inventory needs to be stored in a disaggregated fashion (at each retail outlet) pushing up uncertainty, and thus costs.

E-commerce works on the premise inventory is held in an aggregated fashion thus pushing costs down significantly (especially for “long tail” goods). In exchange, the entire transportation supply chain happens in an expensive “retail” manner. Thus, you save on inventory costs but incur transportation costs.

The problem with businesses such as Grofers is that they incur both costs. First of all, since they rely on picking up goods from retail stores, the high inventory cost is incurred (the hope is that retailers will give Grofers bulk discounts, but that is capped at a fraction of the margin that retailers make). And then, since Grofers transports the item to the customer’s location, retail transportation cost is incurred (whether it is directly paid for by the customer or by Grofers is moot here, since it has the same effect on prices and volumes). Thus, Grofers incurs costs of inefficiencies of both online and offline retail, and is thus a fundamentally unsustainable business.

It can be argued that Grofers offers a degree of convenience that you pay Grofers rather than incurring the cost yourself of getting the goods from the shop. This has two problems, though – firstly, a large number of small and medium retailers in India anyway offer free home delivery (and take orders by phone). Secondly, the cost incurred by Grofers for delivery is a transaction cost and irrespective of who bears it, it results in a reduction of total volume of transactions.

In its last round, Grofers raised $35M. Given the above fundamental inefficiency in its model, it is hard to see the business being worth that much in the long term.