Can remotely managed mobile-marts safely bring groceries to areas in need?

Discussion
Photo: Carts Blanche
Jul 07, 2020
Matthew Stern

People have gotten more used to shopping online so that their groceries come to them due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One Mobile, Alabama-based company wants to bring the whole grocery store closer to customers’ doors with a turnkey unmanned mobile mini-mart.

Startup Carts Blanche bills its VendaMarts as a way that grocers can safely deliver food to local neighborhoods, rural areas or housing and business complexes. Each unit is a 26-foot-long trailer capable of housing 10 automated machines, each servicing its own self-serve line. The unit can be customized with any combination of vending machines, microwaves, ATMs and digital signage while being managed remotely.

Carts Blanche founder and CEO Annette Nolan told RetailWire that the company is currently working in partnership with two entrepreneurs looking to develop mobile convenience stores. One of the companies plans to park the unit in neighborhoods and restock it there, while the other plans to move the unit on a rotating schedule while restocking from a central location. The company does not currently have relationships with full grocery stores, but intends to pursue such partnerships.

The refrigerated/frozen vending machines in each unit are capable of holding larger containers of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, dairy, meats and non-perishables. Carts Blanche anticipates a single trailer, which can be moved by truck, being able to appear in up to 15 different locations per week.

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, some of the biggest names in grocery had already begun experimenting with bringing mobile grocery stores to customers.

In the summer of 2019, Kroger launched its Zero Hunger Mobile Market, which it described as a “single-aisle grocery store on wheels.” The 50-foot unit, which first appeared in Louisville, KY, in conjunction with a local food bank, features nearly 200 products and began making stops in areas with limited access to grocery stores chosen by the charity. Low-income housing facilities, senior living facilities, schools and parks have been some of the facilities and areas serviced by the mobile market.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do unmanned, mobile markets pose advantages in meeting pandemic-era customer needs? Where might mobile grocery be most likely to catch on during and after the pandemic?

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Braintrust
"The most likely impact is that experimentation with mobile grocery prototypes will get a COVID-19 tailwind just as other trends have. "

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13 Comments on "Can remotely managed mobile-marts safely bring groceries to areas in need?"


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Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

I like the idea, especially in cities where food deserts are prevalent but unfortunately, a lot of those customers that live in food deserts don’t have a bank account to tie a debit/credit card to, so the units would have to have a cash option to serve the customers.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Mobile markets are yet another innovative service that has emerged during this pandemic. We have seen the rise of same-day grocery and essential goods delivery and other flexible fulfillment options. However, not every sector of our society has the economic means to sign up for Amazon prime, Instacart premium, or absorb any of the additional costs/tips associated with grocery delivery.

This is yet another creative way to mitigate the last mile and bring groceries, fresh and perishables and frozen food products in a convenient and affordable way. Aside from the initial start-up costs, and maintenance, unmanned shopping mini-marts may just take off. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Sounds like the convenience store version of a food truck — why not? Whether the mobile units will encourage social distancing or crowds is questionable. But at least some retail employees will be spared exposures. The most likely impact is that experimentation with mobile grocery prototypes will get a COVID-19 tailwind just as other trends have. The evolution of automated merchandising in the U.S. has trailed both Europe and Asia for some time and the potential is tremendous.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

There have been several recent stories about the lack of options available to rural and low-income parts of the country, so I see this as a real opportunity for these providers. As long as these mobile markets offer products that don’t replicate the local convenience mart (e.g. unhealthy), this could be a game-changer for underserved areas.

jbarnes
Guest

This is a great idea and very similar to using refrigerated lockers. If the goal is to create another “contactless” customer journey (path to purchase) for consumers in remote areas then leveraging the “meals on wheels or grocery on wheels” is an awesome idea. Note this solution has a limited SKU assortment and is really focused on convenient related items. Refrigerated lockers is a more affordable means and effective way for grocery retailers to deliver groceries in remote areas where the closest grocery store chain is 30+ miles away. However, the mobile aspect of moving the merchandise to the customer or what I call “crowd selling” is brilliant.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is an interesting concept that may be of use in lower-density rural areas where it is not feasible to build a full line grocery store. That said, I wonder what the economics look like. If the aim is to help lower-income families, then prices will need to be sharp — especially if the concept is to compete with dollar stores which have made a massive push into rural locations. Admittedly, dollar stores are not all that comprehensive with their fresh and perishable offerings, but they are improving.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

This is a terrific idea — not only for the era of pandemics, but also for rural areas in general. Many rural shoppers must drive long distances to get groceries. This solution provides safe, available food to those in remote places — wherever they may be.

My only concern here is the “unmanned” part. What about vandalism? What about mechanical breakdown? What about training shoppers to use the vending machines? Out-of-stocks? I don’t believe the mechanics of the unmanned, mobile store are quite there yet … just put a person on there and it’s good to go!

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Liz, we worked with Redbox from the early days of concept testing through national rollout with automated DVD merchandisers. I was continually amazed that they managed to pull off 95%+ of all service requirements remotely. The only time a human visited a machine was to swap out titles. Now granted, T-bones and tomatoes aren’t DVDs, so I’m sure there are incremental challenges. But I also suspect this business model includes almost daily human interaction with the unit. It will be interesting to see how this all evolves though!

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

Thanks for sharing! That’s neat experience. Also — I am concerned about vandalism, especially if economic conditions worsen….

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

Yes, this mobile market may provide a healthier alternative than other smaller format stores that are superettes or c-stores with limited food options in food deserts. Households in food deserts can be lower-income and less likely to buy grocery online so this will be a great alternative. The key is to go beyond the standard vending machine offering and include healthy meal solutions, dairy, fruit, and vegetables. It may be interesting if the community could provide feedback on email or text to describe other needs that are not currently available in the mobile market.

Brian Numainville
BrainTrust

There is certainly an application for this type of concept in many areas that currently are food deserts and/or not served well by the existing corner store with high prices. Conceptually, it sounds like a great idea, but there are some practical considerations of an unstaffed operation — how are out-of-stocks monitored, what kind of anti-vandalism measures are in place, and what happens when something doesn’t dispense as it should, just to name a few things to consider. Plus, do the economics allow for competitive pricing, yet still cover all the operational costs? It will be interesting to see how these types of innovations roll forward!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Hate to be a pessimist but… well, let’s skip over a long list of issues and just look at the way that the pandemic has impacted food production, created basic shortages of product and caused unemployment (which precludes impacted people from being able to buy). I don’t see how this really addresses any of those issues. (And if you’re unconvinced about this not working, we can come back later to discuss the security concerns about it that I have.)

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

This has been done for years, but so rarely that I think the time has come to take advantage of this opportunity. This can be done in both rural and urban settings.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The most likely impact is that experimentation with mobile grocery prototypes will get a COVID-19 tailwind just as other trends have. "

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