Tech

A last-mile delivery robot company switches gears to focus on the potential of mobile vending

Tortoise hopes to use vending machines on wheels to boost businesses’ incremental sales.
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Tortoise

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Amid the short-staffed retail industry’s growing discussion of what robots can lend, one company is evaluating what they could vend.

Robot company Tortoise today introduced Mobile Smart Stores, which are essentially what they sound like: vending-machine containers with tap-to-pay checkout carried by its bots.

  • The company, founded in 2019, was previously focused on last-mile delivery, but is now pivoting to use its robots to sell products themselves.

The tech will debut with 18 retail partners, like Colorado grocer Choice Market and Los Angeles-based chocolatier Lady Chocolatt, all going live within the next quarter, Tortoise president and co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko told Retail Brew.

On the move

The vending machines address retailers’ “existential need for growth”—which has been difficult to fulfill lately due to labor shortages—by offering new sales channels, Shevelenko said.

The mobile stores aren’t selling staples like SunChips and Diet Coke, but rather retailers’ premium SKUs like a $35 pastry box, or even a $300 pair of headphones, Shevelenko said. And from any which place: parked in front of stores, down the block, or at the local park.

  • Tortoise manages the machines through a “remote store clerk” that monitors any “unpredictable” behavior.
  • There’s a Bluetooth locking mechanism, plus branded wrapping to display the products inside and customizable audio to guide shoppers through checkout.

Adding up: Tortoise started testing the tech at the end of last year (which only took one modification to its delivery setup—adding an NFC reader to enable contactless payment) after noticing consumers often assumed they could buy something from its robots fulfilling deliveries, Shevelenko said.

  • The mobile stores garnered 25x a typical vending machine’s hourly earnings, per Tortoise, with Asian-American bakery Bake Sum generating $100/hour in sales by placing it outside the shop for three hours after closing and bringing it to local parks.

The company doesn’t charge for the software or hardware, but keeps 10% of gross sales, Shevelenko noted, so it can be beneficial particularly for small businesses.

“[Small merchants] need incremental sales,” he said. “This is a marketing engine; it attracts that foot traffic and monetizes it better for them. So we certainly see this as being something that enables local businesses to thrive and hire more employees.”—EC

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