Robomart Opens Up its Store-on-Wheels Platform to Other Retailers

Mobile commerce is suddenly more interesting in the age of speedy grocery delivery.

Robomart, which makes cashierless mobile stores that you can hail from your phone, announced yesterday that it is opening up its mobile commerce platform to other retailers. At the same time, the company announced it is expanding its geographic footprint outside of West Hollywood and will be available across Los Angeles through an expanded partnership with REEF Technologies.

The announcement in and of itself is interesting — having a store come to you is an entirely new way of thinking about buying food — but it’s even more intriguing now given the rise of super-fast grocery services like Gorillas and Food Rocket. But let’s put a pin in that for a second.

Rise of Robomart

When it first arrived on the scene a few years back, Robomart was more of an autonomous vehicle play. The company developed a Nuro-like, self-driving pod vehicle to be stocked with a variety of food and beverages that would drive around a neighborhood. Shoppers would use a mobile app to summon the Robomart and when it arrived, customers could take what they want with a cashierless checkout system charging them automatically.

Robomart even had a deal with grocer Stop & Shop to operate in the Boston area, but that agreement never fully materialized as city officials there were skittish about self-driving vehicles on public roads. So like any good startup, Robomart robo-pivoted, and ditched the self-driving pod and put the store in the back of a human-driven van. (The human is there just to drive and customers are specifically told not to interact with them.)

This new version of Robomart officially launched in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles in June of this year. Robomart Founder and CEO Ali Ahmed emailed me a note saying that its initial West Hollywood pilot has been going “incredibly well, virtually all our customers are repeat buyers.” While that’s vague, the service has obviously gone well enough to expand its availability.’

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Platform play

With Robomart opening up its platform, it’s hoping to attract outside retailers to its mobile commerce system (and, you know, generate more revenue). According to yesterday’s press announcement, there are six different Robomart types retailers can choose from: Snacks, Grocery, Pharmacy, Cafe, Ice Cream and Fast Food. The Snacks, Grocery and Cafe versions will be available for deployment in early 2022 and will come equipped with refigeration modules to keep perishables and drinks cold. The Ice Cream and Fast Food Robomarts are still in development with a planned availability in late 2022 (the release did not specify if the Ice Cream version will play melodious jingles while driving).

Retailers who hop on-board Robomart’s mobile commerce platform can pick their vehicle type, choose which products to stock it with, set their prices, brand the vehicle and select their operating zones in the Greater Los Angeles area (retailers in other cities are out of luck). Robomart takes care of the product stocking, tagging, scanning, QA and re-stocking. Retailers will also get access to their van’s data and analytics.

Gopuff n’ stuff

What’s different for Robomart now versus when the company launched is the sudden rise of speedy grocery delivery services. Companies like Gorillas and Gopuff have literally raised billions of dollars this year to give consumers on-demand grocery delivery in as little as ten minutes.

Ahmed told me via that same email that it takes nine minutes on average for a Robomart customer to hail a store, select their goods and checkout (Ahmed said that time has actually dropped to as low as two minutes on some occasions). So that’s on par with what fast grocers promise.

I’m less interested in the idea of Robomart going head-to-head with Gorillas as much as what would happen if they joined forces. Right now speedy grocery services need to operate in densely packed urban areas (a single delivery hub for Food Rocket needs to service 50,000 households). Having a store-in-a-van could expand the possible markets to more suburban-y, less packed delivery areas.

There are downsides, obviously. The whole point of fast grocery delivery is to not have a giant van on the streets. And a van can’t hold 2,500 SKUs like a grocery delivery hub. Plus, driving a gas-powered van around all day is decidedly not great for the environment.

But Robomart’s goal is to eventually get back to its original electric powered, self-driving pod-like vehicle. Once cities and states are more comfortable with autonomous vehicles, the Robomart platform could be a way for big retailers to fight back against the rising speedy grocery delivery services without needing to build out their own network of stationary delivery hubs. Stop & Shop was interested in the idea years ago, it might be even more enticing now (once the laws are settled).

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