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Unstaffed, digital supermarkets transform rural Sweden

The Lifvs start-up has opened 19 stores across the country, choosing remote places that have lost their local shops

by Richard Orange, Guardian 6 Sep 2020

Emma Nilsson’s husband is harvesting hay in the hot summer sun and she has popped into the village shop to get him a bottle of water. But there’s no friendly face at the checkout, or opportunity to swap local gossip. Instead, she pulls out her phone, logs in with BankID, the national identification app operated by Sweden’s banks, and opens the locked glass door with a tap on her screen. With only a small camera in one corner to supervise her, she studies fridges stocked by someone she’s never seen, selects the bottle she wants, calls up a barcode reader on the app, then scans and pays with another tap. This new unstaffed supermarket – a wall of fridges and another of shelves packed into a 22 sq metre container – has made it a lot more convenient to live in Eket, a village of 400 people in the far-north of Sweden’s Skåne region. "It’s a bit weird," Nilsson admits. "It’s strange to have a shop with no one to say 'hi' to. But if this is the only alternative for maintaining some kind of life in a small village like this, then it’s a really nice thing."

The Swedish supermarket start-up Lifvs has opened 19 such stores across Sweden since the start of last year, choosing from the thousands of small villages and towns that have seen their grocery store shut down in recent decades. In 1985, there were 8,500 supermarkets in Sweden. By 2010 there were fewer than 3,500. Eket used to have a small supermarket, but as the population dwindled, it shut down.

According to Anita Eriksson, who is responsible for running, stocking and cleaning the new shop together with two others in nearby villages, the economics of Lifvs is better. "The difference is that they had people working there all the time, and I have three shops and we are open 24 hours a day."

Lifvs aims to have bigger clusters, with a single member of staff for four or five unmanned shops. The shops are installed in containers, so they can be dropped wherever the company sees a market, and then removed if it doesn’t work out. "It’s gone really, really fast," says Daniel Lundh, who co-founded the company with the social media entrepreneur Bea Garcia in 2018. The supermarket stocks more than 500 different goods, with most essentials covered – including meat, salad, vegetables and ice-cream, and the interior has a similar feel and branding to a normal supermarket. "It’s a complete, full-assortment grocery store,” said Lundh. “But because there’s limited space, we don’t sell five brands of ketchup."

He says he doesn’t see unmanned stores such as Amazon Go, in the US and UK, or Auchan Minute, in China, as competitors, as they are both urban convenience stores and so represent a "totally different way of approaching the food market". Rural municipalities in Sweden are so eager to get back a village shop that the Lifvs team does not have to scout for sites for its pipeline. Eket’s Future, a local citizens’ group, teamed up with two other local villages to lobby the company, and the local municipality helped find and lease the sites.Christian Larsson, the local mayor, is considering a similar unmanned solution for local libraries. "This kind of thing is happening all over Sweden right now. For small villages, if you don’t want everybody to leave, this is the future."

Lifvs website: