Nazım Salur is a late bloomer. With glasses and a beard, he has a touch of Walter White to him. Like that chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook from the acclaimed television series, Salur remade his life shortly after his 50th birthday, following two decades of producing furniture and brokering sales of shuttered American factories to Turkish tycoons. In 2015, he invented the delivery app Getir (“Bring”) — a personal butler that delivers groceries to Istanbulites’ doorsteps in about 10 minutes — which has been so successful that, earlier this year, it received an investment of $38 million from an international group of investors, including a partner at the venture capital firm Sequoia.
Each day in Turkey, Salur’s army of deliverymen carry 75,000 packages, containing everything from diapers and condoms to iPhone chargers and canned tuna, to those who can’t be bothered to run their own errands. So, it’s fitting that he is in a bit of a hurry. “I’m a granddad among startupers,” Salur told a room of entrepreneurs last year, after vowing to transform Getir into Turkey’s first unicorn. “I’m living proof of the saying, ‘It’s never too late to begin.’”
When he launched Getir, Salur’s aim was not only to beat his competitors but to take on a centuries-old delivery network deeply rooted in Istanbul’s history. His plan was straightforward: he wanted to ensure that his shipments would arrive in less time than it takes for a local delivery boy to show up with an order. This sounds simple, but it actually involves meticulous planning, deep local knowledge, and strategic investment: warehouses and deliverymen have to be located with such precision that not a minute is lost. But as Salur developed his business, the rivalry between his digital delivery system and the old-school model gave way to new dynamics. Not only did new kinds of competitors crop up, but the company also had to deal with the challenges created by a rapidly gentrifying Istanbul.
In Turkey, there are currently about 160,000 bakkal — local grocery shops that flourished during the Byzantine period. When Evliya Çelebi, the Islamic world’s Marco Polo, chronicled Istanbul’s daily life in the 1640s, he found 1,590 bakkal operating in the Ottoman capital. Most employed three workers: the master bakkal, a female supervisor, and a çırak, the apprentice who wandered the cobblestone streets each morning taking orders he would deliver later that day. These stores relied on intricate knowledge of their neighborhoods, and their growth introduced two novelties to Ottoman shopping culture: proximity and credit. Most streets had a bakkal of their own, and each kept a debt ledger, a veresiye, that allowed customers to shop on credit.
Bakkals’ mixture of convenience and sociability helped their numbers skyrocket in the 18th century, and they evolved into social hubs, where shoppers could trade information and gossip. Deliveries were always fast: since there was a bakkal on almost every street in central Istanbul, çıraks could move orders in no time. Bakkals so severely disrupted Istanbul’s town markets that Sultan Selim III was forced to regulate them to prevent other businesses from going bust. They also established what has become a visual signature of Istanbul: once the çırak arrives at a destination, a wicker basket attached to a rope descends from a window down to the street. The çırak will stuff the basket with groceries, and payment is made at the end of the month.
With the advent of grocery stores, the number of bakkals across Turkey dropped to 162,000. Now, many stock only a small number of items and use their speed to justify high markups. Still, they remain a familiar part of Istanbul life. During the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, a wave of bakkal nostalgia washed over the city. Pious philanthropists bought and paid off veresiye books to help the indebted during Eid al-Fitr celebrations; broadcasters aired stories of bakkals helping quarantined citizens and winning plaudits for their ultra-fast deliveries (in one news segment, a çırak lobbed a pack of tissues onto a customer’s balcony like a softball pitcher). At the same time, buyers branched out into digital deliveries. As Covid-19 cases peaked, Getir’s demand rose by 150%. As of June, its active customer base reached 2 million. The company currently employs 800 in its headquarters and 4,500 deliverymen and warehouse staff, 1,700 of whom joined after the pandemic began.
The larger it grew, the more Getir was seen as a gentrifier, or at least, a service targeting those now gentrifying Istanbul’s once-isolated satellite neighborhoods. Disrupting old-school bakkals, who have history and tradition on their side, is a risky game. Like the London cab drivers who famously have to memorize every street in their city to get a taxi license, bakkals possess unprecedented knowledge of Istanbul, and nobody wants to see them go. And yet, in light of Getir’s technical savvy and expanding ambitions, the old system seemed to face an uphill battle.
In Salur’s telling, Getir was born almost by accident. The company grew out of BiTaksi, a taxi-hailing app he launched in 2013, which introduced credit card machines to city cabs. In the ensuing years, assisted by a court order that effectively handicapped Uber in Turkey, Salur defeated the global car share and other competitors in Istanbul’s ride-hailing race. One weekend in 2015, he was looking at BiTaksi’s dashboard in his living room when he realized that, if his cabs could be sent to any address in downtown Istanbul within 3 minutes, they also could be repurposed to deliver products just as quickly. The idea “was developed in 5 seconds,” he later claimed. He pitched the idea to Arkady Volozh, the CEO of Yandex, “in 7 seconds.” The Russian billionaire’s response was reportedly even briefer: “I like it.”
Once Volozh and other investors gathered $9 million to back the new venture, Salur rolled up his sleeves to get to work. But the delivery business in Istanbul was nothing like the taxi-hailing business, where cab drivers worked collaboratively. Salur’s new competitors had not only mastered Istanbul, they often were like family to customers — many Turks trust bakkals with keeping their spare keys. In order to be competitive, Salur had to map the city with such accuracy that every shipment would arrive faster than a deliveryman on foot. But Istanbul’s geography can be baffling. Like Rome, Istanbul was built on seven hills located inside fortified walls, and the city’s Byzantine downtown is not easy to navigate.
Another challenge was that, in the last hundred years, Istanbul has sprawled beyond these walls, expanding into satellite neighborhoods past the reach of inner-city bakkals. And in the last 10 years, as these neighborhoods have grown in size, so too have the prevalence of master’s and doctorate degrees, signaling an exodus of educated middle-class citizens from downtown Istanbul. In Esenyurt, the fastest growing of these neighborhoods, the market value of one square meter of the most expensive housing unit increased from $171.82 in 2016 to $256.24 two years later. The commercial sector, however, lagged behind, and newly arrived millennials found themselves deprived of necessary luxuries like free-trade coffee and vegan ice cream. To meet demand, Salur’s fleet needed to move tactically and be able to deliver to the exurbs as efficiently as to the center city.
Being the best at solving these problems came down to having the most-comprehensive maps. Apple and Google Maps by themselves couldn’t handle Istanbul’s confusing system of addresses nor its revamped system of house numbering, which was introduced in 2006: some addresses were simply not on these maps. What was needed was local expertise. So, over an eight-month period, Getir’s five-person core team — Salur and his son Mert; Doğan Dalyan, a software engineer who worked with Salur at BiTaksi; Tuncay Tütek, Getir’s co-founder, and Serkan Borançılı, co-founder of GittiGidiyor, the marketplace site acquired by eBay — worked on their own geographic information system (GIS) mapping techniques, according to Fatma Ünsal, an urban planning professor who taught a class with a Getir engineer at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. They took their base mapping data from Turkey’s Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning. (Over the past decade, as the Syrian Civil War forced more than 3 million migrants to settle in Turkey, the Ministry produced network graphs of migration movements across the city.) Then, to inform their decisions about how to deploy drivers and where to rent warehouses, Getir paired this with a GIS system that coordinates data on demographics and consumer behavior.
Mapping is a more complicated science than it might initially seem. First, there is the basic problem of being accurate and up-to-date: if a Getir deliveryman receives an order way out in the exurbs, highway construction or a parade rerouting traffic could seriously screw up his timing and push him past the 10-minute average delivery time. Alternatively, if he has to deliver an order three blocks away in downtown Istanbul, the challenge is to beat the local çırak boys on foot. Part of addressing these challenges comes down to data visualization. GIS enables coders to superimpose demographic, economic, geographic, and sociological data — from incomes and spending habits to age and travel histories — onto maps. When Getir published its user data from 2017, it spoke volumes about the changing dynamics of Istanbul: Westernized areas like Beşiktaş and Ortaköy placed the most orders for books and magazines. Moda, a bohemian-chic quarter on Istanbul’s Asian side, wanted pet supplies. In Beylikdüzü, a satellite district, people were after baby products; in rapidly gentrifying Bomonti, it was sexual health products. Across the city, one of the most popular purchases between midnight and 6 a.m. was çiğ köfte, a classic Turkish steak tartare said to have a 4,000-year history, dating back to the Prophet Abraham. This kind of data is invaluable: it might prompt Getir to stock highbrow print products in a student neighborhood and to load late-night couriers with diapers and raw meat.
The biggest challenge for Getir (or any delivery service) is balancing the interlocking curves of supply and demand. They don’t want to have too many drivers sitting or driving around, and they’re in trouble if they have more customers waiting for orders than they do available drivers. This calculus got even more complicated when Getir began selling items like ice cream or chicken and rice — orders that have to be refrigerated or delivered within a narrow window of time while they’re still hot. Margins were tight, and striking the right balance was the only way to turn a profit. Additionally, since Getir’s drivers are often precariously employed, they’re inclined to work long or odd hours to accommodate the company’s demands.
Salur’s communications team declined a request to interview him for this piece, and when pressed, a company spokesperson said only that the “order-matching system is based on our own coding.” One imagines Salur back in his living room, devising ways to shave seconds off deliveries to make the supply and demand graphs converge. “Because we are a technology company, rather than a technology-supported company,” a Getir spokesperson told me, “we can control planning, retail chain, logistics, and stock management processes with our own infrastructure.” At this point, Getir was a centralized entity: it held its own inventory, had its own cars, and rented its own warehouses.
By January 2018, two-and-a-half years after launch, Getir could boast of its triumphs: it had processed 3 million orders, had an annual turnover of more than 100 million lira, and, through a hybrid use of vans, motorbikes, and foot delivery, was quarterbacking the digital bakkal business. “With companies like Getir, coders began making real money in Turkey for the first time,” Atıf Ünaldı, an author at the Turkey edition of Harvard Business Review and a columnist at Bloomberg Businessweek Turkey, told me. “Getir achieved this by disrupting its market. When I began lecturing about digital groceries a decade ago, there’d always be someone in the audience who proclaimed: ‘E-commerce will never work in Turkey! A Turk would never buy a tomato without smelling it first!’ Nowadays, companies like Getir sell an awful lot of tomatoes.”
But Getir wasn’t to remain the lone digital bakkal in the Turkish market. After a yearslong struggle with its analog rival, it suddenly found itself with new competitors: copycat companies who were basing their systems on its model.
In 2015, Berlin-based Delivery Hero acquired Yemeksepeti, the Istanbul-born food delivery network, for $589 million. This was said to be the biggest digital acquisition in the Middle East at the time and the largest in the online food delivery sector in the world. In April 2019, Delivery Hero launched its digital bakkal, Banabi. Earlier that year, Salur debuted Getir Food, a competing delivery service and the supermarket giant Migros released Migros Now, an app that promised grocery deliveries in 30 minutes or less. Less than two years later, Getir is still the market leader, but Banabi is growing fast. On the first anniversary of Banabi’s launch, it had 650,000 users, delivered more than 30 million products, and was operating in 11 provinces. “We were alone in this field just a year ago,” Salur complained. “We’ve been cloned.” Now, 18,500 deliveryman operate in Istanbul every day, many wearing their app’s uniforms — pink for Banabi and purple for Getir.
Unlike traditional bakkals, the value of these companies doesn’t lie in groceries but in gathering information and figuring out logistics. This gives them the ability to grow in any direction — once they’ve solved those puzzles, it doesn’t really matter what they deliver. Getir’s offerings, which now include underwear and French presses, suggest ambitions to become a Turkish version of Amazon. To draw new investors, Salur has pledged to transform Getir into a full-service logistics company that can, for example, “bring your passport to the airport if you forget it at home.” This is also a pivot that Banabi is making. “We are not just an app that sells groceries,” Eren Atlı, a senior project manager at Banabi, said, “but a service that allows the transport of a product or a service from point A to point B in the minimum possible time.”
So far, the Turkish delivery wars are happening largely between homegrown companies. While Amazon expanded into Turkey in 2018 with “tens of millions of dollars” of investment, the company has yet to offer ultra-fast grocery deliveries and hasn’t made any aggressive moves in the market. But that is about to change: there are more than 300 people, including support teams, now working at Amazon Turkey. In May, it introduced a category for consumables (which includes health, personal care, and beauty), and groceries are expected to follow either later this year or in 2021.
As has happened with delivery companies in many other parts of the world, the race to be the fastest has come with a steep price tag. A detailed look at Getir-related posts on Indeed, the employment-related search engine, shows that a business model founded on the speedy fulfillment of base desires gives deliverymen the short end of the stick. Salur says his deliverymen are, on average, 27 years old; entries on Indeed suggest that these contractors make less than $300 a month. Reviews of Banabi are similarly unhappy: “They hire people who are young and practice discrimination as warehouse managers… When you tell them about your problems they don’t even care. The well-fed don’t understand the ordeals of the hungry.” Getir deliverymen get no lunch breaks, one writes; another complains that he feels like a donkey; a third warns that it’s a thankless job.
One çırak worries he could get a one-star review because the customer was upset that his team was losing a football match when he showed up. Yet an entry by a data analyst who works from company headquarters strikes a different note: “A great venture undertaking a unique business service,” the writer swoons. A warehouse manager also gave the company five stars. It seems the lowest-level workers get the least consideration. In response to these allegations, Getir denied that their delivery drivers are mistreated.
This is unsurprising, given the alarming rise in the number of digital çıraks in Istanbul who have lost limbs or lives over the past two years. “Ten percent of deliverymen die within a year of starting work,” a Turkish news site reported in February. A professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Istanbul University confirmed the figure and said the number of deliverymen taken to emergency services has doubled since 2018. To bring these numbers down, Getir now tracks drivers and fires those caught speeding. “It isn’t our deliverymen who are fast, but our system,” the company asserts. Banabi does not hawk having the fastest delivery times as a selling point and, instead, markets itself on the basis of competitive pricing (its products and delivery fees are cheaper than Getir’s), Yemeksepeti’s reputation, and the option of paying on delivery (which Getir does not offer).
Ironically, once the nature of competition changed and became more digital, Getir began to move away from its centralized model. Since mid-2017, Getir has franchised its warehouses to small crews who run their shops very much like traditional bakkals. It was an early sign that digital bakkals were learning from their predecessors, but there have since been others: Getir recently began delivering Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper and one of the remaining voices critical of Erdoğan’s autocratic government. (“A loaf of bread and a Cumhuriyet,” is a classic order for leftist Turks, who associate it with bakkal culture.) The company also commemorated World Animal Day by sending food to animal shelters, echoing the bakkal-owner tradition of feeding stray animals. During the Islamic holiday in August, Banabi opened an Eid al-Adha section, selling bayram sweets that Turks traditionally buy from bakkals to celebrate Eid.
In the wake of COVID-19, it seems as if both kinds of bakkals will end up coexisting. While Getir’s customer demand peaked during the pandemic, local bakkals also enjoyed renewed interest. A Mastercard report found that, at the height of the pandemic in Turkey, 59% of Turks began to shop near their homes, in order to help local shopkeepers. Since lockdowns began, 45% of respondents say that they’ve discovered new shops in their neighborhood. But there are signs of hybridization on both fronts: While digital bakkals have gone old school, sales of individual e-commerce sites including those operated by bakkals have increased by 200% during the pandemic. Increasingly, the traditional and the digital are meeting in the middle.
In June, freshly released from lockdown, I took a walk to Aladdin, my favorite Istanbul bakkal. Aladdin is an amorphous, chaotic, magical place: a newsagent-cum-lottery-ticket-seller-cum-snackbar-cum-grocery-store. Its owner, Necdet Güler, is infamous for his tense customer relations and high prices, but Aladdin remains a singular institution. “This place is my obsession,” Güler told me. “I spend all my time here, and I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Aladdin was founded in 1930 by Güler’s father, and Güler started working there as a çırak when he was 12. (My own father recalls buying toys there as a schoolboy in the 1950s.) “I’m 77, and I love working here,” he said, as a young customer interrupted, “Uncle Aladdin, how much is this chocolate bar?” It was reassuring to see the shop still doing good business. Over the past 30 years, Aladdin has been a bewitching place for me, as bakkals are for many Istanbulites. Turkey’s Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk even devoted a chapter to Aladdin in his 1990 novel, The Black Book.
Entering the store that morning, I had been looking forward to buying the paper and reading about Turkey’s first unicorn. I went to the newsstand, and there it was: on June 1, Zynga announced that it would purchase the Turkish gaming company Peak for $1.8 billion. Salur couldn’t get there in time.