Driverless Mobile Store Leverages RFID to Bring Food to Customers

Retailer Stop and Shop plans to roll out unmanned vehicles, provided by Robomart, to deliver a selection of products, such as fresh produce, to be perused and purchased by Boston-area shoppers who request the store at their location.
Published: January 29, 2019

National supermarket chain Stop and Shop is the first retailer with plans to deploy a driverless, RFID-enabled mobile store that will offer a selection of goods to shoppers wherever they are located. The solution is provided by San Francisco startup Robomart. RFID enables the system to track each product and identify when it has been removed from the vehicle.

The mobile store is designed to provide the kind of food selection found at a brick-and-mortar store, wherever a customer is located. By bringing an entire store to individuals, rather than simply delivering goods that fulfill a specific order, the Robomart system enables shoppers to select the products they want, based on what they see and feel. Stop and Shop says it has not yet finalized the number of vehicles it plans to deploy, or the specific stores or routes, nor has it decided on the assortment of products the vehicles will dispense. However, inventory will include fruits and vegetables, convenience items such as bread and milk, and meal kits.

The Robomart system lets shoppers select products without the need for them to visit a brick-and-mortar store.

Robomart was founded in 2017 by Ali Ahmed, Tigran Shahverdyan and Emad Rahim, who describe themselves as serial entrepreneurs. Together, Ahmed says, they brought expertise in on-demand delivery, retail operations and autonomous vehicles to the new technology company. “My cofounder Emad had the idea for Robomart almost 14 years ago,” he states, “when both he and I worked at Unilever together.” Rahim had considerable retail experience, while cofounder Tigran has built autonomous vehicles and robotics for several years through his previous startup, RoboCV. Ahmed’s background is in on-demand delivery, he says.

The early concept was a vehicle that would make it possible for shoppers to purchase fresh produce and other products despite being nowhere near a brick-and-mortar store. They began testing the technology with a driverless vehicle in Alameda, and the first commercial deployment of this system will be with Stop and Shop. With the commercial deployments, Ahmed reports, consumers will have the ability to select their own groceries at their doorstep, without paying a delivery fee.

A user of the technology would first need to download the Robomart app, which is available for iOS- and Android-based devices, and set up an account with his or her payment credentials. Then, once that person wishes to shop, he or she can tap the “Request Now” app on the device. The system will identify the location of that consumer’s phone, based on GPS data, and display a map of the closest driverless stores. The customer would select the store, and the system would respond to that request by driving to the user’s location.

Once the vehicle arrives at the location from which the order was replaced, the consumer receives an alert on his or her phone. That individual can then approach the parked Robomart vehicle and slide a prompt in the app to unlock the doors. In that way, the app will know that the consumer is accessing products. The doors will respond by opening automatically, and the user can browse through the selection of food and take whatever he or she wants.

Ahmed declines to describe specific details regarding the RFID system, such as the transmission frequency being used, but says there is an RFID tag affixed to each product and a reader built into the vehicle. The unique ID number of each tag is linked to a particular product in the system’s cloud-based software. When the item is removed from the vehicle, the system will detect that the product’s tag is no longer being read. The app will then list a full breakdown of the products removed and provide a receipt of the purchase. “Based on the total cost,” Ahmed states, “we would charge their saved debit or credit card accordingly.”

Among the various technology options available to track products individually, Ahmed says, he and his partners selected RFID for its reliability and accuracy. According to Morgan Stanley research, he adds, “Less than two percent of groceries are sold online in the U.S., because 84 percent of consumers don’t trust someone else picking their fresh groceries, especially when it comes to perishables like fruits and vegetables.” Robomart is intended as a solution to that problem, he explains. It “gives consumers to ability to pick their own groceries, right at their doorstep,” Ahmed says, adding that no delivery fee is added to the cost of the products.

For retailers, Ahmed says, Robomart offers the ability to expand their footprint without up-front capital expenditures. The software related to sales provides stores with analytics regarding sales and the consumption patterns of their customers. According to Ahmed, retailers can stock any products they choose to in the Robomart. “Initially,” he recalls, “we expect it to skew heavily toward fresh goods, such as produce,” though he also expects daily essential and meal kits to be stocked in the moving stores.

Before the system can be commercially launched with Stop and Shop in Boston, the company is working with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the City of Boston, and other local and state departments related to the movements of the driverless vehicles and the offering of services throughout the city. Robomart is currently in conversations with other businesses as well, Ahmed says. “We have considerable interest from supermarkets, retailers and CPG [consumer goods products] brands to partner with Robomart,” he states.