0. Prelude

A Dark Store appeared almost overnight in my street. What used to be a car repair garage was now a warehouse with cladded windows. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a Dark Store is a warehouse for Quick Commerce retailers. It’s stocked to the rafters with everything from juicy pineapples to cans of dog food delivered by an army of bike couriers directly to people’s doorsteps in under 10 minutes.

Flink, Gorillas, Getir and Zapp. These are a few of the big names in Quick Commerce in Amsterdam. They are the poster companies of the COVID-19 pandemic. Feeding off lock downs, Dark Stores delivered when “regular” stores couldn’t. When quarantine measures impacted our freedom to move, bike couriers were still racing around the city. At its height in 2021, Forbes estimated the industry’s value at €23 billion.

I was curious about Dark Store dynamics. So a few months ago I spent my Friday night in one. If you want something from this warehouse you order it via the app. For €2 a bike courier will deliver it to you. Oral B Toothbrush at midnight? No problem. Magnum almond flavoured ice-cream at 11.45pm? Coming right up. Three dozen Heineken beers? On their way. I figured if a Dark Store was going to be my new neighbour, I’d like to get to know how it works. And so I just asked. I walked into the warehouse and simply asked if I could hang out for the evening, even if it’s strictly not allowed. And that’s how I came to see the inner workings of my local Dark Store.

First thing I can tell you about this Dark Store is that it isn’t dark at all. It’s an ocular onslaught of fluorescent light from morning until midnight. It’s also filled with clawing sounds, from a constantly ringing phone to an incessant beeping sound, like an alarm, that only stops when the existing order has been fulfilled. These sounds code the space with urgency. Everything must happen immediately. There is no heating. And a constantly revolving door. Sweaty bodies move in and out with weighty delivery bags. People shout orders and field questions. This is the soundtrack of the warehouse. 

Within 15 minutes of being in this space, I felt the deeply sensory aspect of it — sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, light — demanding to be noticed. Flash deliveries require young bodies to pack and ride stuff in extreme conditions. Pressures, some small and some large, are exerted on backs, hands, faces and legs as riders and pickers ensure that (mostly) alcohol and sugary snacks are delivered to the residents of Amsterdam.

It was on this Friday night in a random neighbourhood Dark Store that I met DSW. She’s been a picker and rider for a few years (on and off) for various Quick Commerce companies. She will remain anonymous in this publication, for reasons of privacy and because, like many students in Amsterdam, she is in a precarious economic situation and wants to keep her part-time job. She is one of thousands of young people who need money to pay for their studies, rent and food. What you are about to read is her first hand account of life as a Dark Store Worker (DSW). 

affect lab has invited DSW to keep a diary of her experiences and to share this with a broader public to reveal a less-talked about dimension of Dark Stores, that of the sensory. The results are a series of her fascinating and (sometimes terrifying) sensory field notes, colouring in our abstract image of the inner workings of a Dark Store. Her embodied account draws from hundreds of hours of work. Through her writing, she gives us insights into the kind of visceral labour demanded of her as a Quick Commerce Body.

Recently, we’ve interviewed residents about Dark Stores in Amsterdam. Some neighbours have shared stories of how they have successfully warded off their unwanted side effects, like noise, litter, and traffic. Newspaper articles about Dark Stores appear almost weekly. But I’ve never before read such a vivid and personal story such as the one of DSW.

DSW’s sensory field notes form part of a larger research track that affect lab is currently developing in the field of Sensory Urbanism. Our belief is that what we hear, taste, smell and feel in our close environment shapes our sense of place and emotional connection to the city.

This particular piece of work by DSW focuses on precarious workers and is a pre-study to our forthcoming research and storytelling project: A City Eating Itself in less than 10 Minutes. In it, we are calling attention to the fundamental shifts occurring in Amsterdam, a place it seems, much less concerned about cultural and material production, and more possessed by consumption and speed. In the next phase of this project we will explore these shifts in more detail and try to navigate through their disquieting new urban imaginaries.

Dr. Natalie Dixon
affect lab

A project by affect lab. 2022