Unmanned Minnesota Organic Food Store Transforms Grocery Store Model With Technology

At a time when many blame technology for job loss and lack of community, a couple of innovators have recently created unmanned grocery stores in their small towns. Both stores have brought value to their small communities. Best of all, they may have created a new blueprint to solve the grocery store crisis in small towns.

Grocery store crisis? Unless you live or frequent a small town in the United States, you have not seen the steady decline of small town grocery stores. Most have closed down and big box stores are built up miles away, in a closer, larger town. Recently, the University of Minnesota published a study that 62 percent of rural grocery store owners plan on exiting in the next decade. The reason for the mass exodus is that profit margins are too low and the costs to run a grocer continue to skyrocket. This forecast is grim until locals start to create solutions.

Enter Kendra and Paul Rasmusson, residents of New Prague, Minnesota, with a population of just under 7,500 people. This couple was in a quandary. They discovered that an organic diet would help their epileptic 3-year old daughter, so they are decided to open up an organic food store with fresh and locally grown food called Farmhouse Market.

While they could drive a half hour each way — on a good weather day — to stores that would sell this sort of quality food, they felt that this was a great opportunity to open an organic food store in their hometown. When they investigated this option, they realized that making enough money to replace either of their full time jobs was never going to happen.

Faced with this challenge, the Rasmussons started to gather ideas on how this unmanned store could work. They decided to use the 24-hour-gym concept, paired up with a $99 yearly membership. Trusting their customers to be honest, they just set up a few security cameras that can be seen from their laptop or smartphone. In return, local customers are able to purchase organic, locally grown fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats at any time of the day that they wish. Customers select their purchases and easily check out using an iPad. For those wishing an old-fashioned shopping experience, Farmhouse Market is manned 9 hours a week.

Their biggest challenge has not been devising the technology needed to run an unmanned store, but continually finding the locally grown, organic product vendors.

This innovative model was so impressive that they made it into semfinals at the University of Minnesota Carlson School competition called The Minnesota Cup. John Stavig, their mentor, was quite enthusiastic about this idea.

“They might even be able to franchise something like this.”

On the other side of the world in Sweden, Robert Ilijason found himself inventing his own unmanned grocery store solution after a mad dash to the closest grocery store when the last jar of baby food was dropped. Like many small towns all over Sweden, the United States, and all over the world, there is not even the tiniest quick stop store to pick up essentials like baby food, diapers, milk or toilet paper, so to get that baby food, he had to drive an hour round trip.

Like the Rasmussons, Ilijason thought of the concept of a 24-hour gym and how he could take this basic idea, but use it for a general store in their small town of 4,000 people. Ilijason took this one step further and invented a smartphone app for an unmanned grocery store. The app would allow customers to add product requests, as well simply make their purchases.

Instead of building a new place, Ilijason utilized the empty, 480-square foot Post Office for his new store. To keep everyone honest, he added security cameras and gets an SMS should the door stay open for longer than 8 seconds. To further eliminate temptation, the store does not stock any sort of medication, nor tobacco.

Customers enter this unmanned Swedish grocery store using an app called Bank ID, scan their purchases, and at the end of each month, they receive a bill.

While this process is simple for younger customers, there is some concern that seniors or customers that are not comfortable with technology could be left out. According to the Associated Press, Ilijason has considered possibly using a credit card reader to make this process easier. Or, like the Farmhouse Store in New Prague, he may put a real person behind the counter a few hours a week.

Innovators like the Rasmussons and Ilijason are paving the way for tweaking the traditional grocery store model and servicing small towns using innovation and technology. An unmanned grocery store is perfect for less populated communities, and continue to help the small towns thrive. These small innovations are yet another example of how technology can solve problems while improving lives.

[Image via Johannes Jansson/norden.org/CreativeCommons | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.5 dk]