Automate The Freight: The Convenience Store That Comes To Your Door

For as popular as they became during the COVID-19 lockdowns, grocery delivery services like InstaCart rely on a basic assumption to work: that customers know exactly what they want when they order. Once that hurdle is overcome, the transaction is simple — the driver accepts the job, drives to the store to pick up the order, and takes it to the customer. It requires the use of a fair amount of technology to coordinate everything, but by and large it works, and customers are generally willing to pay for the convenience.

But what if you could cut out that step where the driver goes to pick up your order? What if instead of paying someone to pick and pack your order and bring it to your front step, you just ordered up the whole store instead? That’s the idea behind Robomart, which seeks to deploy a fleet of mobile stores for when the convenience store isn’t quite convenient enough.  And the way the company is choosing to roll out its service, not to mention the business model itself, may hold key lessons for other delivery automation platforms.

Mobile Munchies

From the look of current prototypes, Robomart will be hawking their wares from a fleet of minivans. The user experience is similar to InstaCart or even a prepared meal service such as Uber Eats, at least as far as using an app to create an order. But instead of making specific selections, Robomart just sends a van that’s already stocked with a variety of items. Selection will vary; some vans will stock standard convenience store munchies, while others will carry personal care and hygiene items such as would be found at the corner drug store. 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 array of goods. Customer selections are logged by RFID sensors, the account is billed, and the van moves on to its next stop.

During beta tests in West Hollywood during mid-2021, the company reports that the service proved popular, with the average user creating 2.3 orders per week. But the really stunning figure is the turnaround time — Robomart claims each truck averaged only nine minutes per order, from order creation to closeout. The ability to service almost six customers per hour per truck is pretty amazing, and blows away the order time of traditional delivery services, which often have protracted idle time for the driver while food is cooked or an order is picked.

Almost Automated

The astute reader will note, however, that Robomart’s vehicles are noticeably lacking in the typical appurtenances of self-driving vehicles — no LiDAR domes, no cameras other than those needed for inventory control. That’s because the vehicles aren’t autonomous — yet. While CEO and founder Ali Ahmed’s original vision for Robomart was a fleet of self-driving vehicles, and indeed the first prototype van was autonomous, the regulatory structure to support fully autonomous delivery in the company’s target markets just wasn’t in place. So rather than wait for it to catch up, the company wisely chose to test the “store to your door” concept first. It’s arguably the true innovation here anyway, and seeing if the market will reward the idea is probably more important than the gee-whiz factor of having the van be self-driving. They do their best to conceal that fact, though — the van’s windows are heavily tinted, and the driver remains in the cockpit and doesn’t interact with customers during stops. Sounds like a great gig for introverts.

From an “Automate the Freight” perspective, we’ve got mixed feelings about this idea. There’s no denying that there’s a market for a service like this — nobody ever went broke catering to people’s laziness, after all. Add in the fact that you’re literally sending a junk-food-filled van to someone’s house, where there’s nobody to judge you for carrying an armload of Twinkies to the register, and it’s likely that sales will be brisk.

Assuming future versions of Robomart will go beyond the current on-demand convenience store and drug store models — there’s apparently an ice cream delivery van now, but that’s hardly a departure from the current offerings — this could really catch on. Just imagine a hacker’s version of Robomart, chock full of hardware, tools, and other components needed to advance a project on a Sunday afternoon. Most of us would likely be willing to pay a premium for a service like that, if it keeps us from interrupting the flow of work with a trip to the hardware store.

[Photos: Robomart]

45 thoughts on “Automate The Freight: The Convenience Store That Comes To Your Door

  1. I love technology.
    I hate how we are using it.

    Intelligence in some people is a horseshoe shaped spectrum.
    Ideas like this are so brilliant they’re dumb, and even dangerous.

    It’s time for the human race to stop being lazy and irresponsible animals and start reigning in its base consumerist impulses before they become the end of us.

    1. This was always the end result destined for us. It’s the logical conclusion of techno-capital. The lure of exploring the stars was just bait sloppily covering a hook.
      This will do exactly zero to ameliorate covid (and it’s insulting to people’s intelligence to use that excuse), it’ll make wastage and pollution even worse (industry can only move in one direction in that respect, and most people are just barely starting to figure out it’s a ratcheting mechanism). It’s just capital market-making and pandering to base laziness and the core human drive which will cause us to give up literally anything in return for the most petty amount of immediate convenience. I’m convinced that if given a button that would annihilate an entire generation of people several decades in the future in exchange for a cheeseburger that didn’t require them to get up from their chair, they’d slam the button. Most people would fail the marshmallow test even in adulthood now.
      An increasing share of the industrial surplus is being consumed by the task of masking bio-social degradation.

    2. Consumerism is destroying the planet, but an automated truck that delivers groceries and medicines can prevent a lot of co2-farting cars from hitting the road. It’s actually good.

      1. That’s not what this is claiming to be. It’s a rolling, tiny inventory, impulse buy market added to a delivery service that _you_ have to walk to when it arrives.
        A delivery service fukced a lunch truck, this is tarded child.

        Delivery done right is what you describe. That requires smart routing, multiple deliveries per trip etc. All things these bozos have decided ‘don’t matter’.

    3. You’ve obviously never had to drag your sick kid with a fever out of bed and to a store so that you could get them some medicine without leaving them alone for an hour.

    4. Good news!

      This is an idiotic idea and the investor’s money will soon be in the hands of smarter people.

      Yeah capitalism! If some pinhead government type was behind it, it would take decades to die.

      It appears this things business model depends on working automated driving. (not sure, no way I’m giving them a view.) So fukced from their base assumptions…chumps.

  2. Full circle. When I was a kid we would leave the old milk bottles in a carrier along with our order on the front porch and a milkman would leave milk, ice cream, dairy snacks, etc., in the very early morning as was the standard across the US in the 50s and 60s. It was “no contact delivery” though we didn’t know it as such and almost every house got this service.

    1. On May 30th the neighborhood milkman retired. As I recall, when he started decades ago, it was part of a dairy. But that faded, so he’s long been an independent business. And apparently able to keep enough customers. He even added things like a small selection of bakery goods, and apparently oat milk.

      I have no idea if any others are doing this elsewhere. Until my mother died in 2016, she relied on it.

    2. We had a milk man, a meat man, an egg man, a potato chip man. Dry cleaner and drug store would pick up/deliver and so would the grocery store and liquor store. This generally assumes that somebody (‘housewife’) is normally at home. They normally came pretty early, like 6AM. And, of course, the ice cream truck. Grocery stores closed, like most everything else, at 5 or 6PM. Nothing was open on Sunday. Maybe a drugstore but half the aisles were blocked off since you weren’t allow to buy a lot of items on Sunday. Different world. 3 television channels. Possibly less insane.

      1. We had a soda pop truck also. Guess it was the kind of local soda company thing that Jones Soda co etc are trying to emulate in product if not delivery. 1 litre glass bottles. Weekly dropoff and pickup of your empties. They had a tremendous amount of flavors compared to your average grocery store soda selection. Coke bought them up and then they were down to Coke, diet, Sunkist Orange and 7up.. and that killed their home delivery market, and they were just another local bottler dealing bulk until it all went to PET bottles, and regional bottling.

        1. Was that the Pop Shoppe? They sold only through their stores, so you buy and then take back the empties. Popular in the seventies, the only reason I know about it is because someone went and got some for high school events.

          1. Not them no, either I caught the end of Pop Shoppe or saw a revival as I remember them in the aughts, maybe early tens, but haven’t seen them lately.

      2. The drugstore here still delivers my prescription. Until a few years ago there was a small grocery store, really in between a corner store and grocery, and they’d take phone irders and deliver.

      3. Do they still have ice-cream vans in the US? One comes down our street and parks outside my house around 4 times a day, playing his horribly lo-fi jingle. And this continues all year long, not just during what we call “summer”
        To be honest, I don’t really understand the business model. I tend to assume that he is laundering money or selling drugs as well as ice-cream.

        1. Short answer, yes but depends.

          Ice cream trucks basically only hit the poor neighborhoods. Rich kids have ice cream in the freezer at all times and can’t waddle fast enough to get to the street before the truck is gone anyhow.

          When I was a kid a friend of mine drove an ice cream truck for a day. He signed he agreement to only use the truck to sell ice cream, took it home. We all went to the bar district in his new truck. You can infer the rest of story.

    3. Home ice delivery was a big thing before mechanical refrigeration was invented. First the ice was carved from frozen lakes and rivers then packed in sawdust in ice houses. A quite efficient method, I’ve seen an old photo of an ice house that burned, all the ice was left in a stack of blocks. Had to be taken away before it melted but the fire barely touched it.

      Then large scale mechanical refrigeration came along, ice plants were built to make blocks to deliver to customers. That didn’t last very long before refrigerators and freezers were scaled down to fit into home kitchens.

      The advent of home refrigeration was a boon to food delivery because rather than having to have fresh milk and other food delivered every morning, people could order more at a time, delivered less often. A company could serve more customers with the same number of delivery vehicles.

      What came close to eliminating such delivery services was the huge increase in road building and many more cars bought after WW2, along with larger stores stocking a larger variety of stuff. Road + car + variety + home fridge + increasing urban population made the convenience market. Run out of bread? Rather than calling up to have a loaf delivered tomorrow, people could quickly drive to the store, get a loaf of bread, some butter, a couple boxes of JELLO, and a copy of the latest issue of Ladies Home Journal. (Published 1883-2016)

      The telephone was a prior technology revolution that improved the delivery business. Before the phone, people had to give notes to their deliveryman for their next day’s order or well in advance for a special occasion later. Or they had to make a special trip to the store to drop off an order note. With a phone they could call any time during the day to request things for the next day’s delivery, or if they called early before the orders were sent out they could get same day delivery.

      Covid-19 has been the ‘perfect storm’ for home delivery as over the past 15 or so years people have become used to buying online and having everything from diapers to cat food to cars brought to their house. With people staying home so much more these past two years, they’ve come to appreciate the convenience of having things delivered that haven’t been available that way for decades, if ever before.

      I don’t use home delivery for much where I live, mostly Dominos. Small town, surprised a Dominos was opened in 2018. Aside from that we’ve had a Subway and a McDonalds since the late 90’s. If there was MrBeast Burger close enough, I’d be getting a Chris Style burger a couple times a month.

    1. i watched the video… there was nothing in the entire van i would need to buy, ever. would work better with a low slung trailer, lots more space, can connect it to any vehicle, can even make it so you could walk inside. could drop several off in busy places without the added expense of a motor. as posted in the video these are just hyper expensive vending machines on wheels.

    2. @Ostracus said: “It’s biggest competitor … the vending machine.”

      Only if the vending machine drives up to you and doesn’t have a built-in human meat-bag with its hand out demanding a big tip. Mandatory tipping of humans destroys all delivery schemes.

        1. No.

          Visit a nation where tipping isn’t common, watch the _terrible_ service. Get out more.

          Waiter at a fancy place is about the best job an idiot can get (excepting politician). Can’t be too much of an idiot. They do make untaxed bank. Tips being a % the bill, waiters want to work at snobaterias, not ‘cheap family’.

          I think they are expecting autonomous driving to be ready ‘real soon now’. What kind of chump believes those people?

          1. Tips are taxed (easy to do as most tips are paid by credit card).
            –source: entire restaurant industry–
            Not sure why you think service-industry workers are idiots though…

          2. HaHa said: “Visit a nation where tipping isn’t common, watch the _terrible_ service. Get out more.”

            My riposte: I generally get great service in most eateries I visit (UK). Perhaps you get terrible service because you’re sneering at the wait staff – calling them idiots. I _really_ wouldn’t want to sample the ‘food’ brought to you (saliva, poop, maybe some semen – YUM!).

  3. Stuck at homefor two years, it’s hard enough getting what I want. The grocery store offers a limited selection for delivery.

    A truck that lets you select will iffer an even more limited selection. These are glorified food trucks. Probably useful for snacks, but not for all your needs. When milk and bread trucks roamed the neighborhoods, everyone needed it. But how many will want those veggie burgers I like?

    And good luck with door to door parts trucks. How many in your neighborhood needs them? And even if density is high enough, they’d be limited to common parts. Think Radio Shack.

    1. If you are stuck at home for two years now, then getting deliveries is a secondary concern. The primary concern which caused that one is that you let yourself be cowed into house arrest for two years. TWO. YEARS. Good grief.

      1. Drop dead. I nearly died in April of 2019. It took a long time before I could walk again. I was just getting to the grocery store before the pandemic began. So on top of everything else, I didn’t have the strength to stand in line, or carry home a qeek’s groceries.

        So it’s been three years, empathy, not contempt is in order.

        I’ll not be part of your propaganda. I have very little immune system because of the drug I get. Which also means the vaccine, three doses now, didn’t do much. I could stop taking the drug and get my immunity back, but then my immune system would start damaging more organs, like it did damage my kidney in 2019. If Dr Fauci hadn’t worked on my disease, I’d probably be dead by now. Within my lifetime, this rare autoimmune disease has gone from fatalto chronic.

        I know I’ll get sick, so one reason to stay home is the nurses. They work hard under normal circumstances, they don’t need to be burdened with a sure shot like me.

        1. To be fair, you are ‘bubble boy’. You were locked down before Covid and will continue to be after. Sucks to be you. Maybe the neighbor girl will fall in love with you, in your bubble…

          Your nurses have memory t-cells for covid-19 and almost certainly, some of the newer variants. They’ll be fine.

  4. So they re-invented what in the Netherlands we called the “SRV wagen” (dutch for SRV vehicle/wagon), simply small shops on wheels that started in around the 1970s. They were really popular when they started with around 2000 vehicles around the high point, declining to only about 200 or so active store vehicles remaining nowadays.

    The problem with these vehicles is that while people are “visiting” them, they are stopped, very often blocking a street or being in the way, which makes them very unpopular in busy areas

    1. We used to have a mobile green grocer come round when I was a kid, I assume the bigger problem with the business model is that more and more families had both adults out at work all day rather than the housewife staying at home.

      It would be nice to think as home working is more accepted that things like this could return as it does feel more efficient to have a couple of vans/trucks tour the neighbourhood than 100+ individuals drive a car to the local supermarket.

  5. Maybe that little robot featured not long ago (was it called “starship”? the one that got ran over by a train?) Could have a slightly bigger cousin who’s just a vending machine on wheels.

    1. @Hirudinea said: “With the prices of food going up I can see these things being jacked, alot!”

      And if caught the Jackers will not be prosecuted and immediately released scott-free so they can jack again!

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