Farmhouse Market: The unmanned grocery store with heart

Major retailers around the world are reducing employee numbers in-store by employing technology in order to give shoppers a friction-less shopping experience. But for the small Farmhouse Market store in the US its very existence depends on it having no employees on the shop floor.

When Kendra Rasmusson, co-founder of Farmhouse Market, moved to the rural community of New Prague in Minnesota with her family three years ago she could not find the organic food that helps maintain a healthy diet for her young daughter who has epilepsy.

“We wanted organic produce but it was 20 minutes away and we did not want to drive that distance, especially as we have a family and also jobs,” she says.

Opening an unmanned store

The solution was to open a store with her husband Paul but the obstacle was the cost of employing people to work in the outlet. Having undertaken some research technology was deemed the answer and IT experts were then hired to install the solutions that could deliver on the Rasmusson’s requirements.

The compact 650 square feet unit – that stocks 500 SKUs including fresh produce – is kitted out with the necessary hardware and software to enable it to open 24/7 but without the need for any employees. Rasmusson details the technology as comprising a key card entry system on the doors that locks after a person has entered and motion-sensor lights that spring to life when people are walking between the aisles.

There are also video cameras located around the room that provide a live feed to Rasmusson for security reasons and for checking inventory, tablet devices at the checkout where goods can either be scanned by a barcode scanner or they can be searched for on the tablets, and card readers for taking payment.

It clearly works because she says there have only been a few minor technical issues since the store opened. The technology is also integral to Rasmusson running the store and allows her to access the EPoS via her mobile phone thereby enabling the tracking of inventory remotely.

This is enhanced by the feeds from the cameras that give a view of the shelves. This visibility enables stock management to be done without needing to visit the shop floor. Replenishment is undertaken simply by texting orders to the relevant suppliers.

Scalable technology

This method of stock management is helped by the store’s small size but Rasmusson believes the infrastructure could work on a larger unit: “I often walk in and can see if we are out of stock because it’s small enough to manage and we’ve certainly not needed a larger store. But it’s the first of its kind and I do think it could be bigger, it’s just that we’ve not had the requirement to do it here.”

The running of the store is helped by the $99 per year that members pay to use the shop, which gives them the smart key to access the unit. “We’ve 275 members, which is more than we expected. When they join they sign a contract to say they’ll pay for their goods. It’s one strike and you are out if anyone does not pay,” she says.

The ability to enter the store any time of day or night means that “some people do come in at late times but there are more people shopping early in the mornings”. Such freedom of opening is also handy for the farmers who supply the store, according to Rasmusson, who says: “Some have their own key cards and so they can make deliveries at 4am if it fits into their schedules.”

Community feel

For the die-hards who are against using the tech-rich, Farmhouse Market store also opens nine hours per week with a person serving. At these times the outlet is open to the general public and not just to members.

Such a move is reflective of Rasmusson’s desire for the store to be an asset to the whole community while clearly recognising that there is the back-stop of it having to be financially viable otherwise there would be no store for anybody.

“Having a tech-savvy store does not mean that you can get away from communications with customers. We maintain contact via email and were very, very close to our customers. We’re a very community-based shop,” she explains.

For Rasmusson the key role such stores can play is in providing a service in communities where a regular store - with employees always on-site – would not be viable. Technology can play a vital role in enabling these important hubs of communities to operate in a very different way to a traditional outlet.

Needless to say she has experienced a great deal of interest in her unique store with many individuals, organisations, community groups, and technology companies investigating the proposition and how it might be deployed in other areas.

“The technology helps and so if you can find the right solutions then it’s possible for others to open [such] stores. We did it!” says Rasmusson.