Is Robomart the Next Step in C-Store Delivery?

By 
Jackson Lewis, Associate Editor

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- If one technology startup company has its way, the future of the convenience store might be a market that delivers itself to the consumer.

Former Unilever employee and serial tech-startup founder Ali Ahmed has launched Santa Clara, Calif.-based Robomart, a company that wants to make shopping portable and on-demand. One of Ahmed’s former startups, Dispatch, is a delivery service primarily for groceries based in the United Kingdom.

Ahmed is looking to bring this digitally based delivery experience to the United States, but this time with a more forward-looking business model.

The main purpose behind Robomart is to give customers a grocery shopping option that includes both the convenience of online delivery and the ability to touch and feel the produce being selected. Instead of ordering groceries, the idea is that consumers hail an entire delivery vehicle prestocked with what they are looking for.

However, this vision is a long way from becoming a reality, if it ever materializes at all.

Click through for more on Robomart and the future of online shopping …

Bells and whistles

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The Robomart website states that the company is “in the process” of receiving its permit to test autonomous vehicles from the Department of Motor Vehicles in California. To put this in perspective, Google has been testing its autonomous vehicles on open roads since 2009.

But Robomart is not staying idle while it waits for permission to begin testing. The company is a part of computer-chip maker NVIDIA’s program to develop autonomous driving software. More specifically, Robomart is building its software to achieve what the industry calls level 5 autonomy. Level 5 is the pinnacle of autonomous movement, meaning the technology can plan paths and avoid obstacles without any human intervention. This is an ambitious goal, considering Tesla’s autopilot feature is currently ranked at level 2 autonomy.

Who's buying?

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Despite the lack of ability to begin testing, the company says it has built its first prototype of its convenience store on wheels and intends to begin commercial pilot testing soon.

Ahmed is marketing the service as a way for small, local retailers to band together and compete with big-box retailers. As it stands, the business model is to license the platform, including the vehicle, on a 24-month lease to retailers.

The autonomous vehicles are designed to include both heating and refrigeration systems to accommodate any food product.

Retailers who lease the vehicles would have access to an online dashboard, where they could communicate with customers, staff and local law enforcement via the vehicles, and have access to real-time sales data and analytics, in addition to a map outlining the location of each vehicle. Customers would be able to track the path of the vehicle with their order using a mobile app.

Crowded field

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The concept has been compared to the retail vending startup Bodega, a small convenience-store kiosk concept that the public quickly perceived as an attempt to steal business from independent convenience retailers.

Robomart is not the only company aiming to get products to consumers faster. Sidewalk robots from Starship Technologies are in testing in select U.S. markets, and in-car vending machine Cargo is eliminating the need for ride-hailing customers to stop at the store.

The major difference between Robomart and these concepts is that Robomart is still making its way to the start of the autonomous-delivery race. Google, Starship Technologies and others are already trundling down the track.

But just because Robomart is a long way from reality does not mean it will never hit the road. And even if the business never gets off the ground, it is important to note the hype this concept has built. There is an interest among consumers for an online delivery concept that still allows consumers to pick and choose from physical products right in front of them.