Mar 16, 2022 - Technology

The first remote-controlled store on wheels

A Tortoise remote-controlled robot with food for sale on it.
Tortoise's robots are steered by operators in Mexico City. Photo courtesy of Tortoise.

A Silicon Valley company called Tortoise has introduced a remote-controlled robot that can sell a varied inventory — chocolates, AirPods, knee socks — from tap-to-pay containers on its back.

Why it matters: Retailers can use the Tortoise Mobile Smart Store to generate incremental sales without having to pay someone to oversee the transaction.

  • Pedestrians can enjoy the novelty and convenience of buying food and accessories from a cute-looking droid, in what Tortoise calls a 15-second experience.

What's happening: Tortoise introduced its sidewalk-strolling vending machines this month with 18 retailers in the U.S. and Europe. The robots — which so far don't go on public roads but stick to private property — are steered and monitored by humans in a remote operations center in Mexico City.

  • People who encounter the robots can tap their credit card, open the lid and take a box of cookies (or whatever is being sold).
  • Remote operators watch and listen as the transaction takes place.
  • Merchants don't have to pay anything for the robots, but they must remit 10% of gross sales to Tortoise.

"This is something that when people use it, it will be the highlight of their day," Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder of Tortoise, tells Axios.

  • Unlike most self-service systems, the Tortoise system doesn't require people to pre-register, download an app or scan a QR code.
  • So far, the units are generating $80-$100 in hourly sales — 25 times more than a fixed vending machine, Tortoise says.
  • "What we're realizing is people are willing to buy higher price point items out of this method than they are from a traditional vending machine," says Shevelenko, who previously led Uber's micromobility initiatives.
  • "People are buying a $35 pastry box, when previously the most they've ever spent at a vending machine is maybe $4."

Details: The 18 merchants on board so far include Go Grocer, a chain of convenience stores in Chicago; Lady Chocolatt, a confectionary in Los Angeles; and Edith’s, which sells what it calls "Jewish comfort food" in Brooklyn, New York.

  • Bake Sum, a bakery in Oakland, California, puts a Mobile Smart Store near its front door when it closes for the day at 1 p.m.
  • The unit generates more than $100 an hour in sales from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. "on a not particularly busy street," Tortoise says.
  • Bake Sum also brings the unit to local parks.

Yes, but: What's to keep people from taking more than one product?

  • "We've done hundreds of transactions now, and there hasn't been a single person who has taken a second box," Shevelenko says.
  • Signage on the unit "makes it very explicit that there's a camera, and it's looking at you. That plays a massively deterrent effect."
  • Plus, if you've swiped your card to get your product, Tortoise has your payment information and could bill you again if it sees you filch something.

What's next: The Tortoise, which can go up to 5 mph, could potentially stroll local sidewalks selling its wares.

  • "Imagine getting a push notification that says, hey, there's a Mobile Smart Store that's five blocks away from your house," Shevelenko says. "It's got these four items inside of it that we think you might like — let us know if you want us to stop in front of your house."
Go deeper