What are mobile storefronts? A store to your door

About mobile storefronts and why they matter to retailers and e-commerce giants.

People using a future store on a street.

Many retailers today boast of next day delivery, drop shipping and free returns among a myriad of other competing ways to win customers over from their competition.

In fact, our standards and expectations have evolved, and failure to offer these lightning-fast services can be considered a bit behind the times

For how long this is viable remains to be seen and given the sustainability of these options potentially dwindling, is the game about to change? Are we about to see an old idea come to the fore? As retail logistics scales to ever dizzier heights, could the model of a mobile storefront work in some regions?

What is a mobile storefront?

Through some 1950s rose tinted glasses, we think of mobile store fronts like a milkperson who leaves glass bottles on the doorstep, ice cream vans and burger trucks.  

In the new world, they’re something which can be heralded to show up at your address in a specified amount of time, as we’ve become accustomed to with groceries, take-out or transportation. Usually, mobile store fronts would take the form of a vehicle with a select amount of inventory on board.

Why do they matter?

In some areas with high population densities mobile storefronts could out-compete smaller stores and next-day, or same day, delivery by offering a pre-selected range of products which someone can pick and purchase with ease just outside their home. In more rural areas, they could offer lifeline services to communities in much the same way.

This could change operational models for some companies who don’t have the inventory, warehouse management or logistical sophistication of Amazon when it comes to making mass delivery work at scale. This might mean decreasing margins by not passing the cost of getting product to people on, avoiding rising shipping costs or having a lot of costly real estate in the form of large stores or warehouses.

Who is doing this already?

We can look at local purveyors of groceries in some parts of the US and the UK. They charge a premium price for the same product on the basis that the van turns up at your door.

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royal Bank of Scotland used a similar model to support customers in rural areas by giving them access to much needed cash. This model can also extend to healthcare, such as the home eye test provided by Specsavers for people who would struggle to attend an appointment on the high street.

Another example which is turning heads and a profit in the US is Muncho. Muncho make pizzas in the back of a van as it drives around the city fulfilling delivery. By doing this they reduce the need for expensive commercial space thus reducing their overhead cost without compromising on fulfilment.

Are mobile storefronts a new area for innovation, or just another pipe dream?

Some will argue this isn’t innovation, it’s an old idea being reconsidered anew, while still being something that feels inherently better than groceries to your door in ten minutes.

At the heart of innovation is timing. With the logistical cost and overhead of owning a retail space or running a complicated logistical operation from a fulfilment centre being a high barrier to entry and scaled operations, this feels like a strategy worth experimenting with in some categories, even if it’s purely a brand play. Imagine a Coca-Cola truck on a hot summer’s day arriving with you at the touch of a button. 

What’s going to make this a success is adoption and volume – rural areas probably won’t fit this model because of the amount of fuel required to traverse the distance, even though this might best serve these communities. Although, perhaps, the average basket value would be greater meaning the math might end up making sense. Who knows? This is something which is worth experimenting with.

It probably isn’t for all brands; Amazon could try this, but they have their fulfilment centres down to a science. The trade-off being employee experience, but that’s another story. Perhaps the risk would be too great of eroding Prime as a model while also being embattled on returns. Would this also impact grocers and their in-store loyalty offerings, or would a van only offer products which were subject to loyalty schemes thus promoting an increase in adoption of loyalty products for the likes of Tesco?

What could the relationship then be between a mobile-storefront and the store itself. Could stores focus around showrooming products which can then be delivered via the mobile storefront itself, or would they focus on different products altogether in a way that compliments the overall retail offering. 

How will multiple people heralding the application work when you don’t know what they want? How big an area to cover is big enough to make it viable? How do you prioritise stops, if you aggregate by location then do people have to wait longer? And do they have to walk up the street away from their door?

Could mobile storefronts help reduce CO2 by offering a more streamlined approach to distributing product on demand, or will it simply add to the vast amount of idling traffic in inner city areas? Does this impact van or vehicle design for the fulfilment of mobile storefronts? How might electric or autonomous vehicles be designed to facilitate the buying experience of the future. Meanwhile, imagine the potential reduction in the creation and wastage of packaging to ship orders from fulfilment hubs.

So what?

These are all big questions and considerations where answers need bottoming out. However, the idea of the mobile store front is an intriguing one for both brands looking to break through in your category without retail space or a costly logistical model, predicated by large demand, and large established brands looking for a new way to experiment with a root to market at a relatively low cost.

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