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Robomart CEO: Autonomous Technology Will Speed the Rise of ‘Mobile Retail’

Robomart: Autonomous Tech Will Speed the Rise of ‘Mobile Retail’

As self-driving technology comes closer into view, Robomart sees mobile stores as a key retail channel going forward.

The company, which provides hail-able mobile shops for retailers, is already noting the rise of more automated options in food service especially, as Co-founder and CEO Ali Ahmed noted in an interview with PYMNTS.

“One category we could call mobile retail — companies like Stellar Pizza or Muncho,” Ahmed said. “These guys basically do some form of unmanned or automated vehicles that are parked at venues.”

Consumers make purchases from these automated vehicles, he added. On the fulfillment side, meanwhile, the company is seeing robotic delivery gain steam.

Ahmed said Robomart’s model is one step more labor-efficient, since consumers hail the store itself, such that “there’s no order pick-and-pack, and there’s no pickups,” making it faster than delivery.

Plus, for consumers, it is cheaper and quicker than other retail channels, he said.

The company announced via emailed press release the formation of its Autonomous Retail Collective, looping in tech providers involved in the space as suppliers or infrastructure providers. The ecosystem aims to accelerate innovation in the category to eventually create and roll out self-driving shops. Currently, the company’s shops are operated by human drivers.

The goal is to offer a fully autonomous experience.

“It’s not just a self-driving shop,” Ahmed said. “It is a temperature-controlled vehicle. It has a rack that is standalone. It has auto-checkout … [using] RFID.”

The economics of hailing an entire store seem questionable, but Ahmed contended that given how much less expensive a mobile shop is for a retailer than a brick-and-mortar store, it works out in the retailer’s favor, and he maintained that it is cheaper than delivery.

There is demand for self-guided retail experiences, according to findings highlighted in the January edition of the Digital Payments Tracker® Series report by PYMNTS Intelligence titled “Unattended: The Payments Technology Shifting the Future of Commerce.” Eighty-four percent of U.S. consumers have embraced self-service kiosks, with 66% even expressing a preference for them over staffed checkouts. Plus, 36% of consumers specifically seek smarter unattended payment alternatives.

However, many consumers have concerns about the growing role of technology in retail, particularly when it comes to food, which is at the core of Robomart’s deployments so far. PYMNTS Intelligence’s “Connected Dining: The Robot Will Take Your Order Now” drew from a survey of nearly 2,000 U.S. consumers. It found, for instance, that the majority were uninterested in virtual kitchens, and two-thirds were uninterested in robotic food delivery.

One company’s efforts in hail-able food service proved ill-fated last year, with Co-founder Marc Lore’s Wonder company shifting away from mobile kitchens that drive to consumers’ homes to standalone omnichannel food halls.

Ahmed asserted that this pivot does not indicate that the economics of hail-able stores are too challenging to make work, but rather than the company’s model, in which consumers placed their orders in advance, and then full fine dining meals were prepared while the vehicle waited outside consumers’ homes, was too inefficient.

“When you go after something like high-end food, it’s a fundamentally different proposition,” Ahmed said, adding that the grab-and-go occasion without pre-ordering is more efficient. “… Why would you have to figure out what you want to eat first, create a basket, place that order, have them come to you and then cook it right there?”

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