Ukraine War Impacts Could Speed Eventual Consolidation of Delivery Services
First the good news. Yes, gas prices have stabilized over the past couple of weeks.
After the national average had hit $4.33 per gallon on March 11th, they have since dipped back to $4.24 per gallon. That’s good news, though prices remain near historical highs. Meanwhile, as the analysts at AAA note, “Gas Prices Have Stabilized, But For How Long?” The price of a barrel of oil had peaked on March 8th at $123.70 per barrel and then dropped as low as $95.04 per barrel by March 16th. It since has climbed and dipped within that range a couple of times. As of this morning (Monday, March 28th), it stood at $104.80 per barrel.
Most analysts see these dips as an outcome of China going into its most restrictive pandemic lockdowns in two years. Unfortunately, this may give some temporary relief at the pump, but it comes at the cost of even more supply chain disruption. With major Chinese ports operating at reduced capacity, backlogs and traffic jams at our ports are about to get worse again. While a new surge of Covid-19 could see some countries reimpose restrictions and lockdowns that would slow global demand, it is a near certainty that this will not happen in the United State. If anything, the pace of organizations bringing office workers back to the workplace has quickened. The summer driving months ahead are also likely to be major factors. While we will see fewer people going on long road trips and looking more towards regional destinations or staycations, the fact is that during the summer months the US switches to a more expensive blend of gasoline that is meant to fight smog and pollution. All of this means that prices will remain volatile and have a very high likelihood of climbing again.
You don’t have to understand the butterfly effect (a small change in an interdependent system can have broad eventual implications elsewhere), to understand that there are going to be obvious impacts on the current geopolitical and economic situations. The most major could be the end of the global economy as we know it—check out the letter from BlackRock’s chairman to shareholders in our top ten stories of the week. That alone has epic and immense potential consequences (with both risks and opportunities) across the board from the return to permanent higher inflation rates to the potential near- or on-shoring of jobs. All theoretical possibilities, but major ones.
But I am going to focus on something smaller that I think is going to play out. I think the Ukraine crisis is going to massively accelerate the consolidation of the delivery service industry, as well as force it to evolve.
By consolidation, I don’t necessarily mean drive some players out of business—though we have seen this starting to happen—first in the ultrafast grocery segment of delivery. Buyk, which had Russian backing, is now in Chapter 11 due to the impact of sanctions on its core funding. Meanwhile, Fridge No More, a service that had launched in Boston and New York has shuttered due to “growing competition and other industry-related issues.” Consolidation is happening here first because so many of these services are recently launched startups and are far more fragile… but I see this as foretelling a wider trend throughout all the delivery ecosystems.
First, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that pressures are already mounting on these ecosystems. Last week, Instacart (the dominant grocery delivery service with an estimated 63% market share) slashed the valuation of its business from being worth $39 billion to $24 billion (nearly 40%). In doing so, it noted increasing levels of competition from companies like DoorDash—which has been rapidly accelerating its delivery options away from the restaurant space to include grocery, convenience stores, and more traditional retail offerings. Part of the challenge here is the post-pandemic return to normalcy—or, at least, the emergence of a new norm in which grocery delivery has a much bigger seat at the table but will retract from pandemic highs. That retraction could be sharper because of the impact of inflation on both food pricing (for their consumers) and fuel pricing (for their drivers).
Keep in mind that the model was initially built around pay-based convenience. It benefited from a pandemic-era need by consumers willing to pay extra for those conveniences. They will retain much of the market share gained, but not all. With pandemic concerns waning, consumer behavior is returning to past norms. This means that price will become a bigger factor. The announcement last week that Instacart will be adding a fuel surcharge to consumers (which they will pass on directly to their drivers) is bound to lose some consumers on the fringes, though the service must retain drivers.
But none of this gets to one of the core challenges of these models. According to The Business of Apps, Instacart lost $300 million in 2019 and didn’t make its first profit until CoVid-19 lockdowns, with an estimated profit of $50 million on $1.5 billion in revenues in 2020 after business more than doubled.
DoorDash followed a similar trajectory. They have emerged as the market leader with an estimated 57% market share, with revenues skyrocketing in 2020, continuing to post extremely robust growth in 2021, and only a few quarters of profitability throughout their existence. Meanwhile, Uber has made more revenue from UberEats than its core ridesharing business throughout the pandemic and has struggled with similar issues.
This all leads to the extremely relevant question that has been looming out there for years, but was largely forgotten during the CoVid delivery surge; “who (if anyone) makes money off of food delivery apps, like Uber Eats?”
This is not to say that I don’t believe a profitable model can be achieved, but for years the entire industry has been about massive amounts of venture capital propping it up, while the different services attempted to “build the scale” that would lead to profitability. The pandemic surge showed us that individual players could get over that hump, albeit inconsistently. Meanwhile, a number of those privately held companies went public with IPOs over the last few years at a time in which Wall Street’s appetite for tech-driven stocks increasingly led to unrealistic valuations that also propped up companies that struggled with actual profitability as they continued to build out scale. Those valuations are coming back to earth.
The pandemic showed us that delivery could be profitable for single players in a best-case scenario, but not consistently so for even the strongest players amidst strong competition in the marketplace.
Savvy players were already branching out to extend their scale (and the path to profitability) beyond their core businesses. Most of the major players are exploring expanding beyond their initial delivery focal points and I suspect this is one way that the business will consolidate further. Inevitably, I think you will see the rise of players that use the same core of drivers for ridesharing, grocery delivery, restaurant delivery and… increasingly, final mile retail delivery.
This won’t just be driven by their own need to make scale profitable, but it will also be a result of a driver shortage that is going to worsen the longer fuel prices remain elevated and the longer that there is a general worker shortage. One telling tale is that this past week Uber cut a deal to bring New York Taxi drivers into their system—the very industry they so effectively disrupted for more than a decade.
The services are all responding in different ways to attempt to mitigate driver pain; but the reality is that the driver shortage is going to get worse before it gets better. Estimates of average driver earnings vary—with most of the drivers I have talked to telling me it usually works out in the $20 to $30 range, but that is before drivers fill their tanks or pay for the cost of maintenance on their vehicles. Meanwhile, a tight labor market beckons for gig workers that might want a little more stability, even if they may be giving up the flexibility of working for the delivery app services.
Regardless, the labor issues are just going to be another pressure on delivery profitability. The other challenge is going to be economic.
With colder winds starting to blow through the economy and the odds of an eventual downturn in the next 18 months having ticked up, the likelihood is that venture capital funding is going to slow from recent record levels this year. Meanwhile, stock valuations are already entering correction mode. Those back-to-earth valuations make mergers and acquisitions a lot more possible and likely… and given the importance of scale for delivery ecosystems, a smart move.
My wild prediction of the day? Within 18 months, you will see delivery services consolidate with the new model increasingly focused on four complementary hubs: ridesharing, grocery delivery, restaurant delivery and final mile retail. And there will just be a couple of players left battling it out head-to-head, the rest having been gobbled up.
See you next week.