The unmanned supermarkets rescuing Sweden’s rural areas

One after another, grocery stores are shutting down in rural Sweden, leaving villagers to travel miles to buy food. But a new type of shop has sprung up in their wake: unmanned supermarkets in mobile containers.

The unmanned supermarkets rescuing Sweden's rural areas
Store manager Domenica Gerlach enters the Lifvs unmanned supermarket store in Veckholm, 80km outside Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand /AFP

In Veckholm, a village of a few hundred people 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Stockholm, the last grocery store closed more than a decade ago. Then, a year-and-a-half ago, even the little convenience store at the only petrol station locked its doors.

Villagers were left with no choice but to travel a half-hour by car to the closest supermarket.

But in July 2020, an automated, unmanned grocery store came to town. In a container dropped in the middle of a field, open 24 hours a day, the 20-square-metre (215-square-foot) supermarket sells hundreds of items — and there’s no cashier in sight.

“Since a while back, there has been nothing in this area and I think most of us living here have really missed that,” said Giulia Ray, a beekeeper in

“It’s so convenient to have this in the area,” she told AFP, doing her own shopping and restocking the shop’s shelves with her honey at the same time.

Shoppers unlock the supermarket’s door with an app on their smartphone. “We come here three times a week and buy stuff we need,” Lucas Edman, a technician working in the region for a few weeks, told AFP. “It’s a little bit more expensive but it’s fine. It’s a price I can pay to not go to another store.”

He scanned his pizzas and soda on the app on his phone, which is linked to his bank account and a national identification system — an added anti-theft security, according to the store. And it’s all done under the watchful eye of a single security camera.

Keeping costs down

In Sweden, the number of grocery stores — everything from superstores to small convenience stores — has dropped from 7,169 in 1996 to 5,180 in 2020, according to official statistics.

While the number of superstores has almost tripled in 24 years, many rural shops have closed down, often due, like elsewhere in Europe, to a lack of

Daniel Lundh, who co-founded the Lifvs, has opened almost 30 unmanned stores in rural Sweden and in urban areas with no shops in the past two years.

“To be able to keep low prices for the customer, we have to be able to control our operation costs. So that means controlling the rent — that’s why
the stores are quite small — but also controlling the staffing cost,” Lundh said.

He plans to open his first unstaffed supermarkets outside Sweden early next year.

Domenica Gerlach, who manages the Veckholm store, only comes by once a week to receive deliveries. She also manages three other shops, all of them mobile containers.

Peter Book, the mayor of Enkoping, the municipality to which Veckholm belongs, has only good things to say about the three container stores that
have opened in his patch. And he’d like to see more.

“It makes it easier to take a step to move there if you know you have this facility,” he said.

Meeting place and ‘salvation’

In Sweden, one of the most digitalised countries in the world, Lifvs, like its Swedish rivals AutoMat and 24Food which have also popped up in rural
areas, benefits from a very wired population.

In 2019, 92 percent of Swedes had a smartphone. Ironically, the unmanned shops — plopped down in the middle of nowhere — also play a role as a “meeting place” for locals.

“You come here, you get some gas and you go inside and get something, and maybe someone else is here and you can have a chat,” Ray said.
Mayor Book echoed the notion, saying the stores make it possible to connect society”.

The pandemic has also proven the stores’ usefulness, since no contact with other people inside the shop is necessary.

Because of Covid-19, only one person at a time is allowed inside the Veckholm store.

“My mother lives nearby as well and … this has been a shop she could actually enter during all this time. She hasn’t been (able to go) anywhere,”
Ray said of her 75-year-old mother. “This has been a salvation for her.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Just getting started’: Ikea bets big on the digital home

Sweden's IKEA is doubling down its bet on the digital home, launching a new Smart Home business unit, and investing "significantly" to "fast-forward development".

'Just getting started': Ikea bets big on the digital home
The Symfonisk range, a table lamp speaker and a book-shelf speaker_2 DOWNLOAD View Add to Media Cart SYMFONISK range, table lamp speaker and book-shelf speaker. Photo: Ikea
“We need to explore products and solutions beyond conventional home furnishing,” Björn Block, who will lead the new business unit, said in a press release
“The business unit of IKEA Home smart will drive the digital transformation of the IKEA range,” he added. “We're just getting started.” 
Björn Block is the Ikea executive who will lead the new business unit. Photo: Ikea
When Lena Herder, Ikea's new country head for Sweden, announced plans to cut 650 jobs in Sweden last November, she predicted that new jobs would eventually be created in the company's digital and logistics arms.
But the company did not say in the press release how many, if any, new staff it planned to hire in key offices in Älmhult, Helsingborg and Malmö. 
Ikea has been testing digital home ideas since launching Ikea Home Smart back in 2012, and has already launched tables and lamps that can wirelessly charge phones, the Home Smart lighting app, and home audio in partnership with Sonos. 
Ikea's Trådfri gateway, which can be used to control lights and music across the home. Photo: Ikea
But Peter van der Poel, Ikea's manager of Range & Supply, said the aim was now to significantly expand the offering, with a whole new division launched analogous to the children's section selling play furniture, cots, and the Antilop stool. 
“This is the biggest new business we are establishing since the introduction of Children’s IKEA,” he said. “We have decided to invest significantly in Home Smart across Ikea to fast-forward the development.”
Up until now Ikea has been open to partnering with all the tech giants, linking its Trådfri system with Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, rather than trying to create its own voice-activated system. 
The US market intelligence firm IDC expects global sales of smart home devices to more than double over the next five years from $830m to $1.6bn.