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Rivender brings the shop to the shopless

Any everyday items, including those needing refrigeration, can be sold in the patented module units.Rivender

An unmanned grocery store consisting of modules used to sound like science fiction. Now, Finnish Rivender wants to make it the standard of staffless shopkeeping.

Imagine you’re baking biscuits. What do you do when you notice there’s no butter in the fridge or sugar on the shelf? Do you knock on your neighbour’s door or pop downstairs to a cornershop?

In sparsely populated countries like Finland, nipping to the local is not an option for everyone. Those living remotely, be it in a village in the mountains of Spain or far north in Lapland, might have to hop in the car and drive dozens of kilometres to reach the nearest grocery store.

“In Finland, small cornershops are disappearing, and the trend is continuing,” Rivender CEO Juha Pennanen says. “It’s by no means only a Finnish phenomenon, but visible in Europe in general. Supermarkets are getting bigger in size and smaller in number.”

Sometimes, having a small shop with few potential customers might simply not make financial sense, particularly in places where employment costs are high. In some villages, the problem might be finding someone to continue shopkeeping, should the previous owners wish to retire.

This is where Finnish company Rivender wants to step in. It has created Modulshop, a machine and solution that consists of product modules and doesn’t require constant staff presence. Any everyday items, including those needing refrigeration, can be sold in the patented module units.

A compound of companies

Rivender was founded in 2013, but its story goes back to 2009, when the current chairman of the board and Rivender co-founder Sami Lindstedt piloted an unmanned grocery shop near his hometown in western Finland. Taking on board the lessons learned from the pilot, he started to develop the concept further. Pennanen jumped onboard after a business plan had been created.

There were plenty of pieces in the puzzle that needed putting together. Rivender had to find partners to take care of engineering, design, software development and payment transactions. The end result, Modulshop, was born out of the collaboration of over a dozen companies.

CEO Juha Pennanen Image: Rivender

The first version was put to test in the break room of one of the cooperating companies. This led to improvements in the technology, and now, the first ever Modulshop “supermarket” serves customers outside of a hypermarket in the Finnish town of Forssa.

“This is a testing phase, so we can see what works, and then build on that,” Pennanen notes.

The CEO believes that the best way to run a Modulshop is a hybrid approach: a member of staff selling meat, fish, lottery tickets and coffee for parts of the day, and the rest of the time the shop looks after itself.

Control the license, not the machine

Rivender isn’t the only player in the field of unmanned shops. Among others, the retail giant Amazon has developed a concept known as Amazon Go, a supermarket packed with computer vision and sensors that detect and keep track of the customer’s purchases. However, this solution’s target markets are different to those of Rivender’s Modulshop.

Rivender doesn’t aim to stay in the manufacturing business. The final goal is to be awarding licenses to other companies, whilst retaining control of the product and its development.

“We’re planning to open the software interface to other European vending machine manufacturers,” Pennanen explains. “Not to make them improve the product on our behalf; rather, to improve so that they can sell it and we just offer them the license to do so.”

Rivender’s solution has gathered attention in Norway and Spain, and it’s looking to find partners elsewhere in Western Europe, too. Pennanen points out that in countries where labour is cheap, there’s no room for Rivender, but where labour costs are high, a store equipped with Modulshop poses a viable alternative – especially to those lengthy drives to the nearest hypermarket, when all you need is a pinch of sugar or knob of butter for your biscuits.

Modulshop was born out of the collaboration of over a dozen companies. Image: Rivender
By: Anne Salomäki