Name: Farmhouse Market
The Place: Literally one store in the middle of nowhere – well, New Prague, Minnesota – population 7,600 souls. But trust me, this or something very like it, is what the future of the High Street could look like.
The Story: Imagine two people. Married. No background in retail at all and three young children, one of whom has epilepsy.
With you so far: The child with epilepsy needs to eat organic food as it greatly alleviates her condition.
With you so far: However the big ticket stores near New Prague had very limited organic ranges and the nearest co-operative store was a good drive away so like all go-getters with a can-do attitude they thought to themselves…
Let’s do the show right here? Absolutely. And lo, Farmhouse Market was born.
So, impress me – what’s the deal? Well, first things first. The couple in question are Kendra and Paul Rasmusson. She’s a marketing consultant and he’s in banking.
Yes. But the shop? And when they began to wonder if they could provide organic food for themselves it soon became clear that to run a normal store would not be workable.
Yes, yes. But the shop? There simply aren’t enough customers to come in through the door, you see. And they already have full time jobs.
Yes, yes, yes. But the shop? Oh, yeah. So, they did some research and now in the middle of rural Minnesota there is some kind of super duper high-tech little shop with no staff but which is nonetheless open 24/7, restocked via iPad, and entered with a key card.
A few questions: I know what they are. It works slightly like a co-operative in that memberships to the shop are pre-sold. They cost $99 for one year and when you join you get your key card to enter the premises whenever you want.
Spooky! Yes, Kendra Rasmusson admits that the fear of entering the premises alone was one of the challenges that the idea faced initially. But it hasn’t stopped around 275 local people becoming members so far.
Shopping in the dark though. Not for everyone is it? Wait, stop… the lights come on, you numpty, automatically when you enter the unit. And the door locks behind you automatically when you leave.
Oh, right: You find your produce, scan it or search for it on a touchscreen, pay by card and then check out.
Brilliantly simple: If you don’t fancy any of this, the shop is actually open with, you know, actual staff sometimes. Someone there with the lights on. But only for nine hours a week for the die-hard ‘no, we really don’t want a keycard’ types.
And what kind of stuff does it stock? Well, clearly organic produce but lots of local fresh produce too from farmers in the area (they have their own key cards too so that they can come in and restock when they get word from the Rasmussons so it might be milk at 4am if that suits them). But plenty else besides and there are actually 500 SKUs – it’s certainly not some high-end organic
How does the restocking business work with no staff? Pshaw. Of course, Ms Rasmusson has an inventory tracking system to hand. As you would expect. She accesses it via her phone and it’s connected to the EPOS allowing her to easily re-order whenever she sees something is running low. There are also cameras in the store that give her visibility of what’s on the shelves.
Can I ask the obvious question now? Is it about thieving?
Yes, it is actually. All the members sign the contract which says ‘No stealing’ in big letters. And there is a one strike and you’re out scenario generally. And it’s a small community and people like, and protect, the idea of their own market so, no. It hasn’t been an issue particularly. And the video cameras tracking your every move help too.
You know, I’m surprised that more people aren’t interested in this little US store: Get in the queue, baby. The Rasmusson’s have had many, many people beating a path to their door – some represent larger organisations or companies, or a locality without a grocery shop, or are interested individuals or suppliers. She could easily set herself up as a retail consultant tomorrow – there is that much interest.
And is that the future for Farmhouse Market? No plans to make this unit any bigger as it seems to suit as it is. But there is a huge gap in rural communities for such premises and if the technology can be harnessed successfully then the sky’s the limit.
This is all far too positive. Tell me the challenges immediately: OK, OK. There are some. You have to keep working very hard on staying fresh in the mind of the consumer, need to super closely identify your market so you have relevant products available and of course, people have to like potentially shopping on their own. However, don’t think that there is no contact with the customers.
No, really? Yes, it’s all about community – lots of email and social media contact.
I just need to ask – do people come and shop at 3am? Actually, according to the owners, most people come early before work than in the middle of the night.
Have to say it’s impressive. Just to decide what technology is needed with no experience, and to piece it together so that it works and brings suppliers and locals together in a new retail format: You know I couldn’t have put it better myself.