Albertsons Companies, the grocery giant that owns Safeway and Jewel-Osco, has launched a pilot program that will test grocery delivery using remote-controlled delivery robots developed by Silicon Valley startup Tortoise.
The pilot will start at two Safeway locations in Northern California, although Tortoise co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko said if successful, he expects the pilot to continue to scale to other stores in the state and possibly throughout the West Coast.
Safeway-branded delivery carts equipped with Tortoise’s sensors and software will be able to deliver goods to customers up to three miles from the store location. Remote-control operators located thousands of miles away will guide the delivery cart to its destination.
The delivery carts, which can hold up to 120 pounds of groceries in four lockable containers, will initially have a human escort. The aim is the remove the extra guide once the pilot is established. Once the delivery cart arrives, the customer receives a text to come outside and pick up their groceries.
The pilot is the latest example of large retailers adopting technology in a bid to get goods to customers faster. Amazon, Kroger and Walmart are just a few that are experimenting with delivery robots and using autonomous vehicles to shuttle goods to customers or within its distribution network.
“Our team is obsessed with trying new and disruptive technologies that can bring more convenience for our customers,” Chris Rupp, EVP and Chief Customer and Digital Officer said in a statement. “We are willing to quickly test, learn and implement winning innovations that ensure we are offering the easiest and most convenient shopping experience in the entire industry.”
The deal is also a validation of Tortoise’s move into delivery carts, a business pursuit that it kicked off less than a year ago.
“The idea didn’t hit us until April,” Shevelenko said in a recent interview, who added that the first delivery cart was launched in Los Angeles in late October.
Tortoise got its start by equipping electric scooters with cameras, electronics and firmware that allow teleoperators in distant locales to drive electric scooters and bikes to a rider or deliver it back to its proper parking spot. Last spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic raised demand for delivery services, Tortoise adapted its technology to a cart that could shuttle groceries.
“I think about [Amazon] Prime, after that launched everyone expected 2-day delivery, and seven days felt like a lifetime.” Now, two days feels like a lifetime as expectations shift to same-day delivery, he added.
Tortoise initially focused on neighborhood stores and specialty brand shops, through a partnership with an online grocery platform. Shevelenko’s strategy is to land contracts with big retailers while continuing to partner with online commerce platforms, which would allow it to reach smaller, independent stores.