10.06.2016

The sci-fi grocery store operated by technology, rather than people

TECH | | |

Living out in the wilderness but still want artisan goodies in your weekly shop? There’s a 24/7, hi-tech, keycard-enabled, staffless shop for that

The idea of a general store in rural North America serving the community’s needs may conjure up a nostalgic image from a bygone era, before the motorcar and urbanisation. Now, a couple living out in the sticks of Minnesota have given this relic of Americana a 21st-century makeover, with a new, technology-enabled 24/7 grocery store full of fresh and speciality foods.

In the vast swathes of the US countryside, where farmland and fields are plentiful, it’s surprisingly hard for people living there to access fresh food. That’s because in these sparsely populated areas, there isn’t enough demand; with low profit margins, grocery stores struggle to keep their doors open, while most of the produce grown locally is trucked to cities.

When Kendra and Paul Rasmusson moved out of the Twin Cities, Minnesota, to Kendra’s small hometown of New Prague, the couple really missed the variety of natural and speciality foods they had been able to get so easily while living in the city.

When their two-year old daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy and the couple learned about diet-based approaches to help seizure disorders, the need for better food became more pressing. “We wanted to make really great food accessible for our family and any family seeking it in our community,” says Kendra.

 

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Rather than head from farm to farm, often very far apart, to get the fresh food they desired, they decided to open Farmhouse Market, a grocery store that uses technology, rather than humans, to man it. The shop is open 24/7, not only making it more convenient for New Prague’s population of just over 7,000, but also reducing the overheads needed for staffing. Kendra says it’s not only good for customers, but farmers too, who can sell their produce locally.

People who want to buy from the store purchase a subscription, which is $99 for the first year and $20 every year afterwards. They get a card which they can use to get into the store and pay for groceries with. To ensure that no one with light fingers – rather than green fingers – takes advantage, customers have to sign a legal document agreeing to the rules: no stealing; treat the market as if it’s their own; no unaccompanied minors; and only over-18s using the card.

Every inch of the store is monitored by CCTV, which the Rasmussons can watch via their smartphones. They can also see who has come into the store, what they have bought, and inventory levels to make sure things are ticking over nicely.

 

“We think it will work anywhere – in Minnesota, in the US or even in other countries”

 

In seven months they’ve sold 245 subscriptions – 150 of which were purchased before the store even opened its electronically controlled doors. “The community has been very supportive,” says Kendra. “Our goal was to have 200 members after 12 months in operation. We surpassed that goal within three months,” she says.

This is the first store of its kind in the US although a similar concept in Sweden recently launched.

The Rasmussons are now creating partnerships with local restaurants, farmers, schools, hospitals and residents, as they grow the business locally. They have also begun formulating a plan to license or franchise the business model to other communities in the US.

“We think it will work anywhere – in Minnesota, in the US or even in other countries. We haven’t made any final decisions on how we’ll proceed just yet, though,” says Kendra.

Whatever the Rasmussons’ next step is, you can bet that the idea behind it will be as fresh as the produce sold in their store.

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