Unilever has started rolling out its Ice Cream Shop mobile stores in West Hollywood, leveraging Robomart’s vehicles and app with a UHF RFID system to detect what products are in stock and when customers are selecting them.
June 22, 2022Shopping convenience is gaining traction for ice cream lovers, thanks to a partnership between tech company Robomart and ice cream supplier Unilever. With a solution slated to go live this summer in Los Angeles, California, food-loving consumers can use an app to order a mobile store coming to their homes loaded with inventory leveraging radio frequency identification technology. . The store is a temperature-controlled van in which RFID-tagged products can be monitored in real time for inventory and purchasing data.
Known as the Ice Cream Shop, Unilever’s virtual storefront uses Robomart’s fleet of temperature-controlled vehicles, each filled with ice cream products. RFID readers and antennas built into vehicle shelves track all products, based on the RFID tag attached to each item. Consumers can hail the mobile store and pay for goods using the Robomart app.
Robomart, launched in 2021, has partnered with a brand to offer two types of mobile vending solutions, known as Robomart Snacks and Robomart Pharmacy. Over the past year, the company has provided limited versions of this technology to various companies in the pharmacy and snack industries (see Driverless Mobile Store Leverages RFID to Bring Food to Customers and The Convenience Store that Visits You).
The response to beta testing has been impressive, says Ali Ahmed, co-founder and CEO of Robomart. “We’ve seen a phenomenal response,” he says, with consumers hailing a store on wheels and completing their transactions within minutes. “Our fastest start-to-finish engagement was one minute 51 seconds,” he reports, although orders are typically fulfilled in nine minutes, on average.
Hailing an ice cream shop
Unilever is one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world. It offers everyday products ranging from Dove soap to Ax men’s products, in addition to many brands of ice cream. With its Ice Cream Shop enabling summer deliveries in the West Hollywood area of Los Angeles, the company will supply on-demand ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s, as well as Breyers, Good Humor, Magnum and Talenti brands. To make a purchase, participants must first download the Robomart app to their smartphone and then provide payment information which can be stored with their account.
When users are craving for ice cream, they can open the app, select “The Ice Cream Shop Robomart” and view the menu of available products. GPS data from their phone is linked to their command to identify their location, and the request is forwarded to the nearest vehicle. The driver follows mapping instructions to the site, similar to how Lyft and Uber drivers find customers. When the vehicle stops near the customer, that person is alerted in the app and can select a prompt to open the store door. Once the door is opened, the customer can select items from the products displayed.
Each product is provided with an adhesive passive UHF RFID tag, and the unique identification number encoded on the tag is linked to that item in the Robomart software. Due to the relatively long read range of UHF RFID, as opposed to 13.56 MHz HF RFID (several meters, as opposed to centimeters), the system does not identify a selection of a customer until that person has not finished and the door does not close. When the buyer completes the selection, the door must close before the individual is charged. The system then “calculates your basket once the door is closed,” says Ahmed.
There are several ways to achieve this. Shoppers can select the prompt in the app on their phone to close the door, meaning they don’t need to touch anything inside the van. They can also press a button on the side of the door to trigger it to close, or they can just walk away. After a period of time predefined by the operator, two minutes for example, the door will close. Once this happens, RFID readers interrogate all remaining inventory tags and identify what has been removed. The customer is notified in the app of what has been purchased and is charged for those products. The driver can leave and Robomart sends a receipt.
Purchasing and inventory tracking via RFID
RFID technology provides inventory management data so that mobile store products are never out of stock. If, for example, a customer removed the last of a specific flavor and brand of ice cream, or if the minimum stock level allowed in the software was reached, the Robomart system would identify the need for replenishment. The technology also provides real-time data to buyers. If a specific brand or flavor is temporarily out of stock, it’s removed from the app’s menu so the company can avoid disappointing shoppers calling a mobile store looking for a specific product, for the find unavailable.
Additionally, Robomart provides stations where vehicles can be refueled in a nearby area. When a van arrives at such a site, workers can automatically see what needs to be restocked before they even open the van, making the restocking process faster and more accurate. Once an RFID product is placed in the mobile store in the rear of the vehicle, the RFID reader captures its tag ID. The item is thus updated in the inventory data of the van.
Ahmed declines to specify how many Ice Cream Shop mobile stores are used in Los Angeles, although he says there are nearly 100 such stores in the United States to sell a variety of products. For example, Robomart intends to expand its technology presence to grocery and other categories. In the long term, he reports, these vehicles could operate without drivers, although national regulations still require drivers in most areas.
“We plan, in the future, to introduce driverless vehicles into our fleet, as regulations allow,” says Ahmed. In the meantime, although the vehicles each have a driver, this employee does not interact with the customers, but simply delivers the mobile store to them until they no longer need it. While beta testing has taken place with snack and drugstore brands, he says, “We’ve seen consumers fall in love with the system. We average 2.3 orders per week in our user base” during the beta phase, he reports. , while some consumers call at the rate of 10 times a week.
The system requires some time for consumers to acclimate. The company noted early in beta testing that shoppers tended to reach for the doorknob even after swiping through the app to unlock it. “They wouldn’t immediately realize that it’s a full contactless experience,” says Ahmed. The solution, he adds, was simple: “We removed the handle.”
RFID master data provides analytics and historical data, allowing businesses to see in real time (or over days and weeks) which products are purchased most frequently and in which parts of a city or region. neighborhood, so that they can better stock their stores. “It’s been very informative to see which products work well,” says Ahmed.
The advantages of RFID over computer vision
Retailers typically pay a fee for the service, as well as a commission on sales. Traders deliver the product to the Robomart station, and from then on, employees of the technology company take care of all operations, including applying labels to the products before storing the vehicles. The company uses third-party technology vendors for RFID readers, antennas and tags, including Avery Dennison Smartrac and Zebra Technologies.
A technological alternative for inventory management in Ice Cream Shop vehicles could be computer vision systems. However, the store opted for RFID due to the cost and accuracy of the technology. Camera-based systems typically only offer 60-70% reliability, the company found.
“The reality is that you would need an army of humans to manually check video feeds to verify orders,” says Ahmed, “and with our RFID-based systems, not only are they extremely accurate, [but] fully automated. You don’t need humans to manually verify, or just verify them. Robomart hopes to book more mainstream brand businesses and retailers in the future. “We have already exceeded our expectations for a number of bookings.
Key points to remember:
- Consumers in Los Angeles are using UHF RFID technology to flag down a Unilever mobile store, making shopping for ice cream easier and more convenient than visiting stores.
- Robomart enables purchase transactions, as well as inventory control and analysis, using RFID technology.