Boris Johnson’s address to the nation this week included an order to stay at home and advice to “use food delivery services where you can”.
The strain on the delivery infrastructure of UK supermarkets is evident, with few to no booking slots available across the country.
Ocado, the UK’s online supermarket, has a four-hour wait time for its website visitors at the time of writing, with tens of thousands of shoppers waiting in a virtual queue.
But local delivery app Shocal is still fulfilling local product orders with same-day, hourly delivery slots. Profitable from day one, the bootstrapped app is now making waves across the North.
The app began its origins as an idea shared between two new neighbours. NHS developer Max Thorley moved into a new house next door to Ashley Washington in the Greater Manchester town of Urmston.
Among their chats over the fence was criticism of big brands and their effect on local business in the area. That chat, in May 2019, would form an idea for a rival to not just supermarkets but tech giants such as Amazon and Deliveroo.
Thorley, who in his day job has been building NHS websites and database systems for over 10 years, decided to get to work on the idea, having dabbled in app development before.
The new business soft-launched in September 2019, long before anyone knew what Covid-19 was.
Focusing purely on the Urmston businesses and customers, its directors Thorley, Washington and Lance Knight had no grand plans for the hyper-local offering.
But when coronavirus hit the UK, things changed dramatically. Panic buying and social distancing began to put a strain on traditional supermarket delivery services and eCommerce giants alike.
A lockdown put untold strain on local businesses as customers began staying indoors rather than visiting in person. Shocal seemed to solve both these problems at once.
“I tend to work throughout my nights now. I haven’t been to bed yet!” Thorley, Shocal’s lone developer, told BusinessCloud – still coming to terms with its recent success.
The convenience of the app will be familiar to anyone who has ordered groceries or takeaways online, but what makes it different is its focus on local independent business, and an additional feature not offered by any other delivery service.
Independent shops set up on Shocal with a tablet or phone, and start receiving their orders via a notification, including the time that the delivery driver will arrive.
The relatively small distances between the listed shops means its users can combine multiple orders into one delivery, a feature not seen in its larger competitors.
In fact, at the end of last year a Deliveroo advert was banned from UK television after seemingly suggesting such a feature was possible.
Shocal’s drivers, who at first were just the founders’ friends, were not a strong enough workforce to cope with the recent surge in demand.
Thorley said gig-economy drivers from the likes of Uber, who have found themselves with little work, are among the hundreds of new applications to the start-up.
“The customer pays the driver, rather than Shocal. The more points they have to collect from, the more money they get,” explained Thorley.
The app has also received interest from restaurants. Thorley said he had heard from owners that the app is outselling the likes of Deliveroo and JustEat at a local level.
As well as offering same-day, one-hour delivery from independent shops, Thorley said Shocal invests some of its profits back into the local community, which has helped with its appeal.
“10% of profits go back into the community so people prefer to use us rather than a large corporation,” he said.
For every town that uses Shocal in future, its users and social media followers can decide where that 10% is spent in the community.
“In Urmson we’re going to try for the Christmas lights,” he said.
“Over the last five days we’ve had an extra 500 registrations per day. We’ve had tens of thousands of app downloads in the past couple of weeks.”
Those app downloads have sent it to number 117 in the shopping category of Apple’s App Store, helped by media attention and word of mouth. Hundreds of new shops are also enquiring about selling their products on the platform.
The surge in growth has allowed the firm to think about expansion. For now, it plans to expand into other Manchester areas – Sale, Altrincham, Hale, Timperley and Chorlton.
Thorley said covering the North of England is their next big goal. That growth potential has not only caught the attention of new users desperate to get their toilet paper, milk and takeaways more quickly.
“Over the last five days we’ve been approached by people to invest. We’re trying to get the North done as soon as possible,” he said, while clarifying that a national expansion does not mean a national mind-set.
“Basically, we’re not going to sell out. It will remain a community-based app in new areas. The whole point of it is to save the local high street.”
Franchises have attempted to list themselves on the app, said Thorley, but the firm has not allowed it. “We could probably make a lot of money from them, but it’s not fair on the local shops,” he said.
He is currently working on the hundreds of orders received per hour, and is in the process of restructuring the app to fulfil the influx and prepare it for replication in new towns.
Thorley said the multi-shop feature has not been done before because “it’s such a mess” to get right.
To solve the problem in the longer term, the lone developer on Shocal’s small team is investing in machine learning. He hopes that the new technology will meet the logistical challenge of multiple pick-ups per delivery.
“We’re going to develop an AI which will help us do some of that work for us. It’s not going to happen just yet, but that will come with investment – I’m only one man.”
Further down its roadmap, Thorley said he hopes to expand beyond independent shop delivery into new, community-centric product offerings.
“It’s going to be so much more than delivery, we’re looking at restaurant bookings and vacancies,” he said.
The team is also opening an office in Urmston, having previously worked from home prior to coronavirus, and is looking to bring Thorley some much needed tech help in the next few weeks.