RIPPL #45: Sainsbury’s – back in the saddle after 60 years

Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains, has begun a cargo bike pilot scheme. A fleet of five Sainsbury’s-branded e-cargo bikes based at a store in Streatham, South London, will deliver online orders of groceries to customers within a three mile (5km) radius.

The aim is to establish whether or not deliveries by cargo bike are more efficient than traditional delivery vans in dense urban areas. Around 100 orders are being delivered daily during the trial; customers can choose a one hour delivery time slot. Routing software will determine which orders are sent by cargo bike and which will go by delivery van.

The Hercules e-cargo bikes have a box behind the rider for chilled and frozen groceries. Photo credit:

The bikes themselves have a large main box with enough capacity to carry more than one typical order, plus another behind the rider for chilled and frozen foods. Although wider boxes were considered, a 700mm width was chosen in order to allow access to London’s sometimes narrow cycling infrastructure. Another reason for the width choice was to allow the bikes to filter through traffic and avoid getting stuck in traffic; thus keeping the cargo bike’s competitive edge comparison to using vans.

The pilot, which lasts around 2 weeks, is being run by UK-based company, who specified and supplied the bikes, and will analyse the results. Pre-planned adjustments are being made during the trial period in order to methodically test out various theories, methods and scenarios.

For large supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, it’s actually quite a challenge to offer profitable home delivery services. For them, it’s much more profitable if their customers come and collect their groceries themselves. However, in such a competitive market, Sainsbury’s cannot afford not to offer home delivery; so they are looking at ways to close this profitability gap.

How much space would a delivery van have taken up on the road? Photo credit:

This, according to Managing Director James FitzGerald, is one of Sainsbury’s main drivers behind the cargo bike pilot project. believe that using cargo bikes can dramatically improve efficiency and therefore Gross Profits. Fitzgerald said:

“Our data shows that a single e-cargobike can deliver as many groceries in an eight hour shift as a van. There are many factors influencing this happy finding, not least the terrible trouble van drivers have with parking in London. It’s really difficult to park and when they do, they generally can’t park close to customers’ houses, so they end up doing a lot of walking backwards and forwards carrying boxes. Over a shift our cargo bikes are covering 12.3mph* on average, versus 3.4mph* for the van”

*12.3mph = 19.8km/h and 3.4mph = 5.5km/h

Sainsbury’s are in the first instance motivated by the possibility of efficiency savings – as would any business be. However, side benefits come in the form of reducing the impact of operations on the local environment (and of course the good PR that comes with that).

Firstly, in a city where annual air pollution limits were breached a mere week into 2018, zero emissions are created locally by the cargo bikes. ‘Locally’ is the operative word here; it’s important to note that an e-cargo bike can only truly be labelled “emission-free” if it is recharged using energy generated without emitting CO₂. In the case of, who source all of their energy for recharging from green supplier Ecotricity, daily use of their cargo bikes can indeed be labelled “zero emission”.

Secondly and thirdly, cargo bikes do not contribute to perennial problems faced by Londoners of noise pollution and congestion; of roads, parking and in public space in general. are also careful to only use riders with a minimum of three years experience. The so-called ‘gig-economy’, insecure and often temporary work in which few labour protections are provided, is controversial in the UK. But 70% of’s riders are full-time, contracted employees (the other 30% are experienced freelancers with long-term ties to the company). The aim is that this translates into much higher employee skills and satisfaction; and therefore ultimately better customer service on the doorstep.

Sainsbury’s delivery boy Harry, who worked at the Enfield store in North London. This picture was taken somewhere in the period between 1913 and 1915. Photo credit: Sainsbury”s Archive

It’s not the first time Sainsbury’s have used cargo bikes for delivery – as far back as 1913, and as late as 1955, deliveries were pedal powered. According to the Sainsbury’s Archives “boys like Harry [pictured] were employed at each branch to carry home customers’ shopping. If you had a telephone, you could ring and place an order.”

Although Sainsbury’s is the first major UK supermarket to use e-cargo bikes for delivery – a major step, it’s not a world first. Predictably the Dutch got there first; supermarket chain Albert Heijn are already using heavy duty Urban Arrow Tender e-trikes for some of their deliveries.

Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn have several custom Urban Arrow Tenders, which deliver to customers in Amsterdam. Photo credit: Albert Heijn

Meanwhile back in the UK, results from the Sainsbury’s pilot won’t be publicly released – normal for a commercial venture in a competitive market such as this. Whether or not the pilot has been successful in the eyes of Sainsbury’s will however become abundantly clear; in that case the plan is to extend the use cargo bikes to other areas of the country. Other supermarkets and large retail businesses can be expected to follow in their footsteps.

The proof, as ever, will be in the (hopefully cargo bike-delivered) pudding.

Interview with James Fitzgerald, Managing Director,, 24/04/2018
Sainsbury’s: “Sainsbury’s trials UK’s first grocery delivery service by electric cargo bike” Blog: “Sainsbury’s Lead the Way in Zero Emission Home Delivery”
Cycling Industry News: “A glimpse of the future? Sainsbury’s trials e-Cargo bike deliveries”
City A.M.: “Sainsbury’s trials London grocery delivery on electric cargo bikes”
bikebiz: “Sainsbury’s rolls out e-cargobike delivery trial”
Peru Retail: “Sainsbury’s usa bicicletas para hacer delivery de pedidos en línea” (Spanish)
Sainsbury’s Archives Virtual Museum: “Delivering The Goods”