Sweden opens unmanned 24-hour convenience store

The brick-and-mortar shop operates via smartphone: Download the app, swipe a finger to unlock the door, and make purchases through the phone.

Jan Olsen/AP/File
Swedish IT entrepreneur Robert Ilijason shows how to use a cell phone to scan a purchase at the un-manned, app-based shop in the southern Sweden village of Viken on Jan. 27, 2016. While automated technologies, like self-driving transportation has made progress in the US and elsewhere, technology that replaces humans with robot workers has sometimes been more controversial.

A small town in Sweden has opened the first unmanned 24-hour shop in the country, a move the store’s owner says might help bring convenience stores back to rural areas instead of forcing residents to travel large distances to the nearest supermarket.

The store in Viken, in southern Sweden, would be familiar to people who’ve used Zipcar to rent a car or made mobile payments: shoppers download a cellphone app, then use the phone to unlock the store’s door by swiping a finger.

They then use the phone’s app to scan their purchases, which are charged in a monthly invoice, the Associated Press reports.

The 480-square-foot store offers a variety of basics, including milk, bread, sugar, canned food, and diapers.

So far, it’s still a homespun operation created by Robert Ilijason, a 39-year-old IT specialist who got the idea for the store, which opened in January, after having to make a 20 minutes to get baby food.

“My ambition is to spread this idea to other villages and small towns,” Mr. Ilijason told the AP. “It is incredible that no one has thought of this before.”

Other unmanned technologies such as transportation systems are also beginning to gain a foothold outside the US, with regulators in the Netherlands recently championing a self-driving bus system that’s recently begun testing in a small university town. In South Korea, researchers at Seoul National University are currently testing self-driving taxis to help students with disabilities get around its campus.

In the US, while personal self-driving car technology appears to be slowly moving forward, championed by tech companies and carmakers, other efforts that could potentially have an impact on the labor market have slowed.

One example is all-electronic toll systems, which are currently in use on busy routes such as the Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s Henry Hudson Bridge between the Bronx and Manhattan. On the Henry Hudson, drivers that don’t have an EZ-Pass transponder must pay $5 by mail after their license plate is captured by a booth-mounted camera.

But drivers from Connecticut, for example, aren’t required to pay later because of a current deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, though they have racked up a bill of $496,000 in a two-year period between 2012 and 2014, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In New Jersey, toll collectors have also faced concerns about privatization efforts that have also threatened their jobs. Those battles – which resulted in salary cuts for the public employees – occurred as the state continued transitioning into using EZ-Pass on the New Jersey Turnpike. Since the automated toll-taking system was first introduced in 2000, the turnpike has seen a decline from 900 toll workers to nearly 200 full-time and 450 part-time jobs.

But in a more unusual move in a time of increasing automation, Mercedes Benz recently gave some of its robot workers a pink slip, replacing them with human workers in its biggest plant, which produces 400,000 vehicles a year.

“Robots can’t deal with the degree of individualization and the many variants that we have today,” Markus Schaefer, head of production at the German carmaker, told Bloomberg. “We’re saving money and safeguarding our future by employing more people.”

But in the small town of Viken, the transition from human workers to automated shopping is making progress, though the store still needs human help.

One concern for Ilijason’s store is how older residents in the town of 4,200 people will use the new technology.

He is considering other ways to unlock the door, including using a credit card reader like what is used by many banks, or the more personal option of having someone man the store for a few hours a day to help people who aren’t comfortable with the high-tech shopping, the AP reports.

Currently, he receives deliveries and stacks products on the store’s shelves, then leaves the rest to his customers. For security, he has installed six security cameras and gets an alert by text message if the store’s door stays open for longer than eight seconds or if someone tries to break it open.

But some customers hailed the store’s speed and convenience. ”No queues,” Raymond Arvidsson, a friend of Ilijason's, told the AP. “Quick in, quick out. I like.”

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