And it could be happening sooner than you might think.
the moby mart
Credit: Courtesy of The Moby Mart

Brick-and-mortar stores aren’t doing too hot these days. After all, it’s the age of online delivery. But items that magically appear on our doorsteps don’t seem to totally fulfill us, either, and some of us still crave good ol’ human interaction. It seems we’re in need of a middle-ground service—one that leverages all the benefits of in-person interactions with the efficiency and ease of one-click ordering.

Enter: Moby Mart. It’s a futuristic-sounding store that actually comes to you. No, not the items you want to order. The entire store drives around on wheels.

And while there aren’t actually humans operating it (it’s even driven by a somewhat artificially-intelligent computer), there’ll at least be holographic ones in the form of store clerks and cashiers, which will be able to assist you as you shop. There are even “microdrones” on top of the car that would be able to make door-side deliveries or possibly float up to the high windows of apartment buildings.

This isn’t science-fiction, either, according to a new report by NPR. Although many of the aspects of the Mart have yet to be finalized, there’s already a prototype operating in Shanghai as part of a collaboration between China’s Hefei University and a Swiss company called Wheelys.

Lest you start worrying about the environmental impacts of yet another vehicle out there on the roads, this one’s powered partly by electricity and partly by solar power. It even includes “built-in air scrubbers” that will purify the air surrounding the market.

It seems the lead designer of Moby Mart, Per Cromwell, thought of just about everything. He even included cloud computing software that would allow Moby Marts to communicate with one another in case one vehicle runs out of a certain item and the others have some in stock.

As Cromwell told NPR, the model is the result of his desire to bring together all the benefits of in-person and online ordering: "Stores needs to be more flexible to meet the demands of the future. Rents will go up in prime locations, margins will go down on a lot of products due to online retail. Stores need to become more efficient. Mobile and staffless is to date the most flexible and efficient solution. When online and offline merge a new kind of store is needed.

Four to six more Moby Marts will arrive in the coming year, with hundreds more planned for deployment in 2018, and they’ll begin by selling things like food, groceries, and coffee, according to the NPR report. But they’ll likely expand to other industries, too.

"We will gradually add different products on different markets," Cromwell said. "In the end, there will be no difference in products from what you find in stores today — with the one limitation of larger products. Moby Mart is not ideal for showcasing sofas. But we have some cool ideas for this, as well.”