May 26, 2022 - Economy

Robot stores-on-wheels are making inroads

Mobile stores roaming around the Mall of America.

Mobile stores roam around the Mall of America. Photo courtesy of Tortoise

Robot vending machines may be coming soon to a mall, airport, theme park, grocery store or sports arena near you.

Why it matters: While mobile robots may eventually help solve the last-mile home delivery problem, they may first prove their worth as cute onsite sales representatives — earning incremental revenue for companies that deploy them while warming the public to the idea of robotic assistants.

Driving the news: Tortoise, which makes what it claims is the first remote-controlled store on wheels, says it's getting big traction from companies that operate sports venues, airline terminals and supermarkets.

  • Tortoise's remote-controlled robots have been selling concessions at NBA and NHL games, and soon will be launching with MLB and the NFL.
  • They're wandering the Mall of America for Nickelodeon, selling popcorn, cotton candy and theme park tickets.
  • And they're mingling with office workers at San Francisco's Levi's Plaza, deployed there as an amenity by the development's owner, Jamestown, to lure people back to work.

The robots work well at "any location where you have long lines, a lot of food traffic or a captive audience, or ideally some combination of the three," says Tortoise co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko.

How it works: Customers use a credit card to unlock a box on the Tortoise's back and take their chosen product. Each robot is steered and monitored remotely by humans at a Mexico City control center.

  • The average transaction time is 11 seconds.
  • 30% of people make a second purchase right away.

"The first time they try it, it's like, they're almost not even sure what's going to happen," Shevelenko tells Axios. "And then people either buy a second item from the same container or one from each container" on the robot's back.

  • "These are transactions that would likely not have happened if we hadn’t been there," he adds.

The intrigue: While Tortoise is "very intentionally not doing anything in last mile" deliveries, another robot company, Starship Technologies, which shuttles food on U.S. college campuses, is going full steam ahead.

  • Starship is delivering groceries for Co-op and Tesco in the U.K., as well as for Save Mart in Modesto and Pleasanton, California.
  • CEO Alastair Westgarth points out that his droids don't require human monitoring.
  • When it comes to local package delivery, "the only way long-term to do it in a cost-effective, safe and environmentally sound manner is by significant automation," Westgarth tells Axios.

What’s next: Both Tortoise and Starship say they're about to unveil partnerships with giant U.S. grocery chains. The former’s robots will offer impulse buys to curbside pickup shoppers, while the latter’s will make home deliveries.

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