Automated, cashierless stores are often deployed in bustling urban areas, where they can help keep high-traffic commerce moving. These retail models cater to customers who are on the go by offering seamless experiences and convenient payment methods.
Such locations can be critical in expanding retail options for smaller cities and towns, too, and staff-free grocery store Farmhouse Market seeks to do just that for consumers in New Prague, Minnesota. The small city had a population of about 8,000 in 2015, and its grocery store offerings were limited.
“[New Prague] had just one big-box grocery store on the outside of downtown,” explained Co-founder Kendra Rasmusson. “We lived over 20 miles from our nearest co-op, and were really desperate to source local, organic, natural food options.”
Rasmusson’s daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy at age two. She thought the right diet could help reduce her daughter’s seizures, and became determined to open an organic food store to fill the service gap.
Launching a grocery store proved to be a complicated undertaking, however. Rasmusson and her husband, Paul, believed that 24/7 accessibility was important to providing a convenient, automated service, but they were unable to manage or afford staffing the store around the clock. The pair ultimately designed a concept that could operate without any on-site staff to solve this quandary.
“We looked to technology to assist us,” Rasmusson said.
Designing For Security And Remote Management
The Rasmussons debuted Farmhouse Market in a 650-square-foot space in 2015. There were initially about 190 registered members, but that number has grown to 275 today. Customers visiting the store can select items and check themselves out with a tablet-based point-of-sale (POS) system that accepts credit and debit cards. The shop’s lighting is motion-activated and triggers when customers enter.
Farmhouse Market does not have an open-door policy, however, and instead relies on a variety of security technologies. Access is typically restricted to paying members, each of whom receives a keycard in exchange for a $99 fee the first year and $20 each year thereafter. The keycards can be used to unlock the store’s doors, and each customer has their own unique card. This allows the Rasmussons to determine who is entering the shop at what time.
The market’s security system and video cameras further help identify potential shoplifters or other issues. Kendra Rasmusson said it operates under a strict “one strike and you’re out” policy — any member caught stealing is banned from the store. There have, thus far, been no issues with theft.
The market relies on a small footprint, and the store has been able to operate using the same technology it has maintained since its launch.
“Our store is small,” Rasmusson explained. “It has to be in order for it to be manageable from afar.”
The keycards enable both members and local farmers delivering inventory to access the store 24/7. Rasmusson said this is particularly helpful for the store’s more than 20 suppliers, who can deliver goods on their own schedules. Though the same all-hours access is granted to consumers, they are less likely to take advantage of it.
“In reality, we don’t have that many middle-of-the-night shoppers,” she said. “But, hey, it’s nice to know you can do it, right? Local consumers feel like our products are always available.”
For certain designated hours each week, the Rasmussons revert to a more traditional retail model and staff the store. The shop is open to the public during these periods, and the staff also handles security. Additional payment options, including cash, are accepted during the staffed store hours, and the market is also working to enable electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards.
Automated commerce concepts like Farmhouse Market show that unattended store models appeal to more than just larger markets. Local operations can also leverage self-serve technologies to stay open longer than otherwise possible as they work to bring smaller municipalities added convenience.