As Amazon Fresh and Instacart race to deliver groceries to your front door, a new kind of shopping experience has quietly joined the market.
Enter Robomart's small fleet of Mercedes vans stocked like convenience stores and guaranteed to show up at your house in under 10 minutes.
In West Hollywood, residents who run out of toilet paper or laundry detergent can pay $2 to hail the miniature stores straight to their home addresses. The pharmacy van's sliding doors open to reveal rows of paper products and over the counter medicine. There's also a snack car stocked with cold soda and candy.
"Who's our target demographic?" said Ali Ahmed, founder and CEO of Robomart. "It's pretty much everyone."
The Santa Monica-based company pitches the car as a robot, but that might depend on how you define "automated." Vans are navigated by drivers who are trained to keep the tinted windows rolled up and wait quietly for customers to browse products.
For contactless checkout, the company relies on radio-frequency identification, or RFID, which uses small sensors that pick up movement from little white tabs taped to each item.
After a shift, drivers bring the vans back to an operating zone where REEF, the company known for managing ghost kitchens, replenishes products and counts inventory.
I tried the service out. After hailing the van and waiting a little over eight minutes, my pharmacy Robomart pulled up and I started shopping. The shelves displayed a standard selection of toiletries and medicine cabinet items you might find at a gas station convenience store.
Prices were lower than I expected (the same tube of Colgate toothpaste from the nearest CVS cost $1 more) but variety was limited. And there are still glitches.
The van doors slid shut once I ended my transaction on the app. I idled outside the car for a few extra minutes talking to the Robomart driver when an email arrived listing my purchases, minus a bottle of conditioner I picked up.
Ahmed promptly sent a note to inform me the mistake was a "human error" that he suggested was caused by the Robomart driver. He said my chat threw off the sensors that are supposed to track what customers take. To work properly it requires the driver to leave immediately after the purchase.
He said to fix the problem, he plans on installing a two-way speaker system for customers to chat with the driver or a customer support agent.
Already, there's a small video camera inside each van "as a backup check." Where exactly they're planted and what is done with that footage is unclear.
The van is still somewhat of a beta version and far from what Ahmed first envisioned. His prototype in 2018 was completely self-driving, a dream he's had to put on ice for now as have other delivery and ride hailing services.
Ahmed declined to say how much capital he's raised but said the company is backed by Wasabi Ventures, SOSV, The Automation Fund, Hustle Fund, Archetype Ventures, Hardware Accelerator and W Ventures.
The CEO is eying groceries, deli food and pantry essentials next.
"The alternative, I feel, is actually driving to the store," he said. "We save that entire headache."