Since 2015, there have been at least 57 major retail bankruptcies. And after more than 5,000 store closures in 2017, we are on track to surpass that number in 2018. A combination of increased online shopping, declining foot traffic in malls, and competition from digital native brands has made retail a more challenging industry. Today’s retailers will have to adapt quickly to succeed in a rapidly changing market dominated by e-commerce.

Brick and mortar stores are being pummeled by e-commerce retailers with drastically lower overheads. Companies like Warby Parker and Casper have successfully connected the dots between the online and physical retail experience. But for the next pioneers of commerce, there is something even more disruptive happening around the corner: autonomous delivery.

Auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, have already partnered with several companies, including Amazon, to create self-driving package and food delivery vehicles. With autonomous vehicles in their infancy, it can be difficult for any industry to imagine and, more importantly, implement innovative use cases. But the retailer of the future has to explore the opportunities autonomous vehicles offer — from deliveries to roving showrooms to other capabilities not yet imagined.

Making “lean” more lean

For retailers launching a new product or looking to break into a new market, autonomous vehicles with delivery capabilities can reduce the cost of being in a physical retail store, a mall kiosk or a pop-up shop. Additionally, autonomous vehicles can provide accurate insights into where a product is gaining traction and where it is being sold. The vehicle can then efficiently move between low and high trafficked areas. From the perspective of the lean startup methodology, autonomous vehicles applied to retail could reduce production costs and overhead and could minimize the risk of product failure before mass distribution.

Showrooming

Most folks shop with their smartphone in hand, comparing prices between physical and online stores. Nearly 71 percent of consumers are shopping online to find a better price. This shows that while consumers do want to look, feel, and touch the items they buy, they are very much price conscious.

A mobile self-driving showroom — a low-cost retail store on wheels — could be a major win for consumers by solving the online shopping problem of buying products without seeing or touching them first. And for retailers, there is the major benefit of mitigating the risks associated with setting up a physical storefront. This keeps the costs low for both the retailer and the consumer and can serve as a great brand awareness opportunity when exploring new test markets.

Connecting the online and offline worlds

Retail e-commerce sales represent only 10 percent of total retail sales in the US. Companies such as Casper and Warby Parker succeeded by combining the e-commerce business model with the ability to touch and feel a physical product through a delivery system. They successfully connected the online to offline worlds and bridged that gap. While they eventually opened up popup locations and, in some cases, physical retail locations, it is this connection between the physical and digital worlds that created a recipe for success.

In the near future, autonomous vehicles powered by AI will be able to bridge that same gap for other retailers while gathering insights on where the most successful target markets are likely to be.

It’s safe to say that businesses will adopt autonomous vehicles faster than consumers with the exception of some exceptionally keen early-adopter types. With the potential cost savings that can materialize throughout the supply chain by integrating machine learning and AI and by reducing the overhead of physical stores, commerce will find itself evolving from traditional brick and mortar stores to mobile stores that are on-demand and that relocate in response to customer and business demands. It’s only a matter a time.

Shaoshan Liu is founder and CEO of Perceptin.