Auto Freight: Convenience store that comes to your door

As popular as they were during the COVID-19 lockdown, grocery delivery services like InstaCart relied on one basic premise: Customers know exactly what they want when they place an order. Once that hurdle is overcome, the transaction becomes easier – the driver accepts the task, drives to the store to take the order, and takes it to the customer. It requires the use of fair amounts of technology to coordinate everything, but it works extensively and customers are generally willing to pay for the convenience.

But what if you could skip the step where the driver goes to pick up your order? Instead of paying someone to pick and pack your order and bring it to your next step, did you place an entire store order instead? That’s the idea behind Robomart, which wants to set up a fleet of mobile stores if the convenience store isn’t convenient enough. And the way the company chooses to roll out its services, not to mention the business model, may contain key lessons for other delivery automation platforms.

Mobile stage

From the look of current prototypes, RoboMart will be hawking their luggage from a fleet of minivans. The user experience is like using an app to create an order, at least for instance, or even a ready-to-eat food service like Uber It’s. But instead of selecting specific, Robomart just sends a van that is already stocked with various items. The selection will be different; Some vans will stock the stage at standard convenience stores, others will carry personal care and hygiene items such as those found in corner drug stores. Once the van arrives, the customer will unlock it using the RoboMart app, which opens the side door of the van to reveal the attractive and enticing layout of the product. The customer selection is logged by the RFID sensor, the account is billed, and the van moves to its next stop.

During a beta test in West Hollywood in mid-2021, the company reported that the service had proved popular, with the average user making 2.3 orders per week. But the really staggering statistic is the turnaround time – RoboMart claims that each truck averages just nine minutes from order creation to closeout. The ability to serve up to six customers per hour per truck is amazing, and blows away the ordering time of traditional delivery services, which often have a long idle time for the driver when cooking or taking orders.

Almost automatic

The discerning reader will notice, however, that RoboMart’s vehicles have a marked lack of general utility for self-propelled vehicles – no LiDAR domes, no cameras other than the ones needed for inventory control. Because vehicles are not autonomous – still. Although Ali Ahmed, CEO and founder of RoboMart, had a vision for a fleet of self-propelled vehicles, and in fact the first prototype van was autonomous, the regulatory structure was not in place to support a fully autonomous distribution in the company’s target market. So instead of waiting to catch it, the company wisely decided to test the “shop at your door” concept first. However it is arguably the most important innovation here, and to see if the market will reward the idea is probably more important than the G-Whistle factor of self-driving the van. They try their best to hide this fact, though – the van’s windows are heavily colored, and the driver is in the cockpit and does not communicate with customers when stopping. Sounds like a great gig for introverts.

From a “freight automated” perspective, we’ve got mixed feelings about this idea. There is no denying that there is a market for such services – after all, no one has ever been able to provide food for human laziness. Add to this the fact that you are literally sending a junk-food-filled van to someone’s house, where there is no one at the register to judge you for carrying an armload of Twinkies, and sales will probably be faster.

Future versions of Robomart are expected to surpass existing on-demand convenience store and drugstore models – now apparently an ice cream delivery van, but this is a rare departure from current offers – it can really be caught. Imagine a hacker version of Robmart, full of the hardware, tools and other elements needed to move a project forward on a Sunday afternoon. Most of us are probably willing to pay a premium for this type of service if it prevents us from interfering with the flow of work with hardware stores.

[Photos: Robomart]

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