LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- At the moment, all that exists of AutoCart here is a Web site featuring some renderings and a flash movie, some patents, a dozen employees and one big idea.
Yet if its founders have their way, AutoCart could revolutionize shopping by offering the selection and prices of a grocery supercenter in a store consumers could shop without leaving their cars.
In an interview with SN, Steve Beardsley, president of AutoCart, described his vision of a drive-though shopping mall where product categories would be leased to various branded retailers, including supermarkets, and in which consumers could pull in, place orders on a touch screen, and drive up to a pickup station where products are delivered to their cars within minutes. Although press materials suggest the first AutoCart stores could be open a year from now in Albuquerque, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz., and that as many as 1,500 locations could be open within 10 years, Beardsley said the company as yet owns no specific properties and has no agreements with retailers to lease space.
"Our goal is to have our first store 80% to 100% along the way by this time next year," Beardsley told SN. He added that AutoCart is currently choosing among three locations for its first facility, mostly in Southwest cities ranging from El Paso, Texas, to Phoenix.
Beardsley said he has a letter of intent with one supermarket company and hoped to receive at least two others. "Until we have a binding letter of intent, I'm not comfortable expressing who those grocery vendors are," Beardsley said. "But we have grocery vendors who are very interested, from small regional grocers to national chains."
AutoCart's success will be based on consolidating the top consumer shopping destinations for as many as 17 product categories, including groceries, drugs, liquor, video rental, dry cleaning, a restaurant and office supplies. These categories would be leased to retailers as in a mall, with retailers paying a percentage rent based on capacity, as well as common charges. Tenants would share a common labor pool of around 65 employees, but would also provide and pay certain employees to work on site, such as a produce manager or a pharmacist and a customer-service manager. Beardsley said retailers in this arrangement would save "dramatic" costs as compared to traditional retail settings that would allow for pricing near or below prices at discounter supercenters, such as Wal-Mart.
Consumers would benefit from lower prices as well as time saved by the concept's one-stop approach. In addition to ordering on site, consumers will be able to place orders via the Internet or phone, and drive to the facility to pick them up. "We can do in 20 minutes what might take more than an hour otherwise," Beardsley said. "And we can do it cheaper and more effectively."
Tenants in AutoCart facilities would be granted exclusive territorial license for their category, and would identify themselves with signs at the facility. "[Unless] Kroger or Albertsons said, 'We want all of your locations nationwide,' we feel we want to be more regional," Beardsley said. "So in a St. Louis area, it might be Schnucks or a Dierberg."
The AutoCart facilities would be 130,000 square feet, and could accommodate 30 ordering and pickup stations and as many as 60 vehicles per hour. FKI Logistex, Cincinnati, would provide a sophisticated warehouse management system that would deliver items efficiently and quickly. "All a retailer has to do is put his name on the building and his product in the building," said Beardsley.
Beardsley co-founded the concept with Michael Saigh, AutoCart's chief executive officer. Saigh, an inventor and college professor, is a descendant of Fred Saigh, the late former owner of baseball's St. Louis Cardinals franchise. He later became a major stockholder of the company he sold the team to, Anheuser-Busch. Saigh is funding the first AutoCart location, which Beardsley estimated will cost between $10 million and $15 million to build privately.
The partners, who met several years ago, own a restaurant in Las Cruces called Bountiful Baking Co., which they intend to operate in AutoCart centers, Beardsley said.