Small Swedish Stores Are Miniature Oases In A National Food Desert

It all started one night in 2016 after [Robert Ilijason] dropped the last remaining jar of baby food in the house, breaking it. On the 20-minute drive to the nearest supermarket, he had an idea: what if there were small, 24-hour convenience-level grocery stores that could fill the glaring need for access to basics across the country?

Sweden has lost a few thousand smaller grocery stores in the last 25 years or so, mostly in rural areas. For many people living outside the cities, the nearest place to buy milk is several miles away, at a huge supermarket that’s either in a city, or close to it. After [Robert] built Sweden’s first 24-hour unmanned convenience store, the idea received quite a bit of media attention.

Five years and a pandemic later, the concept is still going strong. A chain of 30 of these bite-sized bodegas have popped up all over Sweden, run by a company called Lifvs. They have no staff at all, not even a cashier. Instead, shoppers unlock the door with their phones. They scan all their barcodes into an app, which provides a bill every month and is linked to both their bank account and national identity system. Beyond that, security is in the form of a single camera.

Because these tiny stores are staff-less, the prices can be kept relatively low. The only problem is that the technology is a bit of an issue for some older residents. Back in 2016, [Robert Ilijason] was trying to figure out another way for customers to unlock the door, but it doesn’t look like Lifvs has solved that problem yet.

One thing you can’t complain about with a store like this is the selection. We have to wonder if shoppers are more or less likely to encounter fasciated fruit amongst the produce.

47 thoughts on “Small Swedish Stores Are Miniature Oases In A National Food Desert

    1. I’d say the same about the UK. However we have a huge network of small convenience stores, manned, which make most of their profits from alcohol and tobacco, but also selling the essentials. There are three within 5 minutes walk for me. Sure, the alcohol is 50p a can/bottle more expensive than the supermarket, but convenience wins.

  1. We have one in our neighborhood in Uppsala and unfortunately theft seems to be a big problem, otherwise it’s a great idea. (We complained to the guy in charge of ours that nothing ever seemed well stocked and he told us he doesn’t dare to stock it because so much stuff is stolen)

    1. This was the first thing I thought of.. I thought it must work there because the Swedes are such well-behaved people.

      I suppose this could work with embedded RFID tags and a scanning portal at the door.

  2. What about alcohol ? I do not know if it is still the case but in the 90’s every single off-license was owned by the government in Sweden and only open from 9 am to 5 pm 5 days a week. To buy a bottle of spirits you typically needed to take time off work (or use flexitime make a large enough time window to pick some up).

    1. Regular stores in Sweden are allowed to sell beer to 18 year olds with an alcohol content up to 3.5% by volume. Anything with an alcohol content above that needs to be sold in the Systembolaget (straight translation is the System Company) stores, which since some time in the 90s have expanded their opening hours to include up to 3 pm saturdays where before they were closed. On weekdays they’re open up to 8 pm. Systembolaget requires the buyer to be at least 20 years old (unless, I guess, one buys alcohol free beverages there).

      1. I read a study somewhere that the additional opening hours on Saturdays lead to an increase in alcohol consumption, and the conclusion was that availability drives demand and therefore it was a bad idea.

        Meanwhile in Finland, their total alcohol consumption has been on a downward roll for 15 years and their state monopoly increased opening hours to 9 pm and 6 pm to keep the sales up. They liberalized strong beer in grocery stores, and it had virtually no effect on the levels because they already had proper beer up to 4.7% available everywhere since the 90’s.

        Reality being that nobody likes to drink the Swedish “folköl” because it is almost water, so there’s a lot of frustrated demand that leads to binge drinking when alcohol can be obtained, and glorifying alcohol consumption as a status symbol among the teens, which then leads to the exact opposite drinking culture than the state nannies are trying to achieve. Of course the failure of the system is seen as the justification for its continued existence, because the immediate effect of opening up the alcohol trade would be a national piss-up that would take couple decades to clear out.

          1. Pregnancy and STD rates should be pretty low then.

            Would actually be correct if this was the ONLY thing driving demand for anything. But it obviously isn’t, there are a multitude of factors beyond simply “is it illegal or not”.

            Yknow you stem people are seriously bad at philosophy some times. Its like, you never had to logic in a language before.

          2. >people will want more of it

            Yes and no. The absolute demand of course goes down as the availability and price goes up, but the perceived value of alcohol and drunkenness increases, which then largely negates or reverses the advantages gained from lowering the total consumption.

            For example, when a single beer costs you $10, having just a single beer seems like a waste of money – which is kinda the point of it – but then people compensate by having two beers, and three beers to get drunk, because it is no longer sensible to drink alcohol if you don’t get anything out of it. Add the status effect and suddenly you got binge drinking, where people pick one day of the week to get absolutely hammered, which is less healthy and creates much more social problems than if they had much more alcohol in smaller amounts throughout the week.

            Throughout Scandinavia where they have this state monopoly culture and extreme taxes and limitations on alcohol, people don’t even go to bars to get drunk because it’s even more expensive there. They drink at home, which then removes the social control aspect from drinking. The people who do go to bars first drink 12-pack at home for “bottoms” and then take a midnight taxi to a bar to drink some more. Poor people and teenagers brew a kind of prison wine out of plain sugar and distiller’s yeast, and that’s seen as normal and not a sign of social problems – just a bit trashy and low culture.

            The official numbers show total alcohol consumption, measured and estimated, at levels just under the EU average, so the policies are “working”, but at the same time alcohol problems are rampant in society and the limitations only really affect people who don’t have an issue with alcohol, which is what creates the reduction in total consumption.

          1. Tax evasion with imported spirits is rampant, because the laws are a bit unclear on the matter and they don’t have the resources to intercept all of it.

    2. The liquor monopoly known as Systembolaget are open mon-fri and sat opening hours are around 10-19 depending on location with the exception of sat 10-15. They offer home delivery nowdays also.

  3. A solution would be for elderlies to have a plastic physical key that would be actually be an RFID key identifying them.
    They would still have to scan each article, and could pay with the same key.

  4. Reading about it in Swedish news I get the impression that Robert’s concept failed really hard in 2016 with the shops closing (the payment system didn’t work, on top of all the thefts) [source in Swedish:,9271.html%5D.

    It seems that there has been a resurgence by other companies and people doing their own new pilot projects in 2020-2021. Here’s Robert in 2020 saying he hopes the new Lifvs shops will do a lot better than his Näraffär did [in Swedish: So I don’t think it’s been going strong since 2016, it’s just new people and companies trying the same doomed idea some 4-5 years later.

  5. In my rural town in Australia we have one big supermarket and one small food store. The smaller store treats its staff better and therefore they have genuine smiles and are helpful. In addition they stock all the organic, local and unusual products not in the big store. Only some products are a little more expensive. They are also much more pro-active about plastic reduction. All of these things combined means that they have a loyal local following with many using the small store exclusively for all of their weekly shopping. There is nothing that can beat real human contact to create loyalty and a community spirit.

    1. Community spirit certainly can be a winner, but I can see the appeal of just getting the job done too, especially if its cheaper for the same product.

      I wonder how many staff they actually need to do the re-stocking, its certainly an interesting model.

      1. Here in Southern California, Trader Joe’s has a fanatical following, is smaller, has a small fraction of the items for sale (around 4,000), but has a larger staff than the nearby supermarket. Surprisingly, at Trader Joe’s, prices are less, revenue per square foot (sorry, square meter) of retail space is a large multiple, and the staff seems genuinely happy to encounter familiar faces among the customers. The supermarket has literally hundreds of thousands of stock items (just how many hundred varieties of laundry detergent do you really need?), and miserable staff.
        We have occasionally moving from our town to a small town in the Midwest, and our contemplation became much more serious when Trader Joe’s opened a store there. It is similarly successful.

    1. Armed robbery for cash in Sweden is already a bit weird in itself. (It does happen at times, but robbing electronics stores is way more common, not to mention robbing Systembolaget. (the government liquor store with a monopoly on everything above 3.5%.vol))

      As a swede myself, I can inform you that giving someone cash here is about as convenient as trading physical objects as if money didn’t exist.

      Mainly since there is few places that accepts physical money. Stores have more cash free “cashiers” than ones that accept cash, and sometimes the cash one isn’t even staffed, ie card and other electronic payments are the norm here.

      And between individuals, we mainly use a service called “Swish” (it is like paypal but different), partly a joint venture between the various banks here. Mainly thriving thanks to another service called BankID. (That is rapidly taking over the whole signatory part of contracts as a whole, and not using it is getting more inconvenient every week…)

      Though, personally I don’t use Swish. Since the service it relies on (BankID) is a bit lacking in regards to device support (Ie, I have a “too old” phone.), and their reasons for it as largely bogus. (Though, even Swish follows the same stance.) In my opinion it creates a lot more additional e-waste than desired.

    2. Not really a problem in Sweden anymore, almost no one uses cash here. A foreign bank robber was foiled when he tried three different banks and none of them had any cash.

    1. Well, it works in the countryside because it’s sparsely populated. If it get robbed, everyone knows who did it.

      Put it in Rosengard and it will be bombed and burned in five minutes.

      1. Some years ago where I live in Weiser, Idaho, the Maverick gast station and convenience store was robbed. The perps were extremely easy to find. It had snowed and *nobody* but the robbers had been out that late at night. The police followed their fresh tire tracks 20 miles down Highway 95 right to their front door.

  6. I visited quite some ‘robot-shops’ in China and one thing in common with all these walk in automatrons… theyre were almost always people there refilling the cabinets..of course you dont have to pay or train them
    as cassiers or employees i guess

    1. we still have them here in the Netherlands. They’re called “Automatiek”. You drop your coins, open the little window and take out a fried meat or cheese snack.

        1. That’s pretty unlucky, I’ve eaten from them hundreds of times and never got anything.

          Of course you pick the ones that look the freshest ;) Usually not those in the middle. They put new ones at the top and bottom and move the older ones to the middle where customers are the most likely to take them.

  7. 20min a long drive? in the US it is not at all uncommon to drive something like that to reach a proper grocery store. Sure you might have small neighborhood markets, gas stations, convenience stores, bodegas closer, but these places generally don’t have the selection that a proper grocery store has, not the healthiest of foods, and prices are marked up because of the convenience factor.

  8. Here’s an interesting video series from 2010. In the town of Shepton Mallet Some old high street shops were remodeled for a different era each week, then inhabited and operated by present day people as if they were back in time. 1870’s, 1900’s, 1930’s, WW2, 1960’s, 1970’s. During the 1900’s and WW2 weeks they all had to go a day without all the men that would’ve been eligible for the military, and the older boys who could have lied about being old enough.

    What’s not covered is how quickly the shops were redone each week. The bakery would’ve been most difficult because it went from a wood fired oven to gas to electric in the first three weeks.

  9. The comments above about the decline of cash in Sweden make me wonder how they handle events like the recent internet outage:

    Here in .au the outage was a real problem. Well, it was a problem for people who didn’t have cash. Fortunately most shops here still accept cash, even if they look at you funny if you actually USE cash :-)

    A lot of small retailers here are also starting to tack on an electronic payment fee of around 1%. I guess people here have too much money, or poor maths skills. They’d scream bloody murder if the price of petrol went up 1%, but they seem happy to take the hit just so they can pay for a bag of chips using a card or their phone instead of money.

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