Ali Ahmed drove across the country from New York City to Los Angeles last week, but in spite of the 41-hour, 2,700-mile journey, he didn’t need to stop for food a single time. That’s because he wasn’t driving his own car — instead, he took the company van.
Ahmed is the CEO and co-founder of Robomart, the LA-based company that’s shaking up the food delivery model by bringing the entire store to the customer rather than just a single order. Fresh from demonstrating his company’s Snacks Robomart at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, Ahmed had no shortage of everything from chips to energy bars as he drove the van back to headquarters.
“[Robomarts] are essentially stores on wheels that you can hail with a single tap,” Ahmed explained to Modern Shipper.
Of course, Ahmed still stopped for the occasional meal despite driving what is essentially an on-demand convenience store. But Robomart customers can order more than just snacks; the company also offers variants of the Snacks Robomart that deliver everything from groceries to pharmaceuticals to ice cream.
Ice cream was a big part of Robomart’s start. In 2008, Ahmed and Robomart co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Emad Rahim were both working at Unilever, where Rahim worked in the consumer goods company’s ice cream division. Inspired by ice cream vans, he had the idea to take other forms of retail onto the road, but technology limited what he and Ahmed could do.
Fast-forward about a decade. Still committed to delivery, Ahmed had just left Dispatch Messenger, a U.K.-based startup he founded in 2015 that lets users get anything delivered within an hour using instant messaging. The company was a success, with over $1.3 million in request value in its first 20 days. But in 2017, Ahmed moved to the U.S. and reconnected with Rahim over the idea they had at Unilever.
“I told him about my experiences with delivery, and we reconnected over that old idea we had at Unilever,” Ahmed recounted. “And we said, ‘You know, this would really solve the problems of delivery and make it extremely fast by delivering the store instead of products.’ And that’s what we did.”
Ahmed, Rahim and a third founder, current Chief Technology Officer Tigran Shahverdyan, founded the company in 2017 at a time when many food delivery apps, such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub, were just beginning to take off. But the three founders were ready to go against the grain.
“There was a lot of activity around automating retail and last mile,” Ahmed said. “It was a really, really exciting time to start this new concept we call store-hailing, which is a completely novel way of looking at delivery.”
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One advantage of store-hailing over the traditional delivery model is that it enables more deliveries because drivers spend less time traveling back and forth between a restaurant or store. But the model doesn’t just help drivers save time — customers benefit too.
“By virtue of not having to create a basket, we do away with that whole ordering process, so customers can save 20 to 30 minutes,” Ahmed explained. “If you’ve ever created an online order for groceries, it’s a really arduous process. With Robomart, you’re tapping one button.”
Robomart debuted a small initial prototype of a self-driving grocery store at CES 2018, where Ahmed said spectators couldn’t get enough of the concept. A year later, he and his team had completed a fully road-ready, driverless Robomart prototype, but all they could do was test it while they waited for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations to catch up.
However, Ahmed wasn’t satisfied with waiting around. So Robomart got to work again.
“We wanted to get live right away with a commercial service. And so that’s what we did,” he explained. “To meet that challenge head-on, we decided to launch with drivers but while keeping the experience fully automated for the consumer.”
After an alpha test in December 2020, Robomart launched an invite-only beta for its commercial service in June, bringing a small fleet of Snacks and Pharmacy Robomarts with drivers to customers in West Hollywood. The results have been phenomenal, according to Ahmed, who said users average 2.3 orders per week. For comparison, less than one-third of food delivery app users order more than once every week.
The program is also showing off Robomart’s delivery speed, which is about nine minutes per order on average and has been clocked as fast as one minute and 51 seconds. That means a single Robomart can fulfill up to 5.6 orders per hour, including restocking time.
Part of what makes Robomart so efficient is the ease it brings to consumers. Robomart app users can hail a store on wheels with a single tap and are alerted when it arrives in front of their residence. Then all they need to do is step outside, open the Robomart van using the app and grab whatever they want.
And all of that happens without interacting with another human. The van’s windows are tinted so users can’t see the driver, and the whole experience is checkout-free; Robomart uses RFID technology to track what users take, sending them a digital receipt and charging their credit or debit cards after they finish shopping.
“They shop for whatever they want to grab and go,” said Ahmed. “It’s a fully checkout-free proprietary experience that we’ve created.”
Robomart’s model is optimized for drivers too. Like other food delivery platforms, Robomart’s driver app provides order and routing information, as well as notifications that alert drivers when their inventory is low and tell them when they need to restock.
While a move toward full automation is the ultimate goal for Ahmed, he has a different focus on the near term. In September, Robomart launched its turnkey platform for retailers that allowed them to order Robomart vans to create their own branded mobile storefronts.
When deployments on that marketplace-style platform begin early this year, customers will be able to choose from four different Robomart types — Snacks, Grocery, Pharmacy and Café, with Ice Cream and Fast Food models in the works — or they can browse by retailer. Several models, like the Grocery and Snacks vans, have refrigerated sections to store perishable goods. Ahmed told Modern Shipper that the company is also working on a fully frozen Robomart for its Ice Cream model.
No other company has embraced the store-hailing model quite like Robomart has, and that may be the case for the foreseeable future. In January, the company was awarded a patent for one-tap grocery ordering via a self-driving minimart with checkout-free technology, so when Robomart eventually goes driverless, it will be tough for competitors to follow suit.
The patent also covers many of the technologies that enable the store-hailing model, such as the tech that allows users to unlock Robomart using their smartphones.
“I like to tell people that Amazon has patented one-step checkout, and we now have the patent for one-step ordering, which is extremely exciting,” Ahmed said.
He isn’t the only one who’s excited. At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, retail executives and media members swarmed Robomart’s booth while Ahmed happily demonstrated the store-hailing model he’s been building for years. Those folks might have just witnessed one of the first glimpses into retail’s future.
“You can pick your own goods. You don’t have to rely on somebody else, you don’t have to expect out of stock items –– everything is there,” Ahmed said. “You’re shopping as if you’re at a store, and it’s a completely different experience compared to delivery.”