19 March 2024

Edvin Johansson is the entrepreneur who put his studies on the Master of Science in Industrial Engineering and Management programme on hold to set up AutoMat, Sweden’s first chain of unmanned food shops. Now he is back on campus, not to study, but to provide students with cucumber, milk and bananas in his biggest shop yet – located at the centre of the bustling student scene.

Man in food shop
Edvin Johansson describes himself as a problem solver and problem finder. “If you can’t find the problem, you can never solve it,” he says. Charlotte Perhammar

On a cloudy grey morning we meet at AutoMat in Colonia, the student housing area directly adjacent to Campus Valla. Here, in the middle of the bustling student scene, Edvin Johansson has opened his largest unmanned food shop to date. Customers use their BankID to get in, and pay using a self-scanning till. On a good day, there may be as many as a thousand customers and the most popular items are cucumber, bananas and plenty of milk and energy drinks.

A man picks up goods in a grocery storeGetting to know each shop's clientele is vital. Here in Colonia, cucumber and energy drinks sell best, but the bestsellers in the Ekängen shop are milk and finer meats. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar The shop, which has the largest turnover of all AutoMat shops, has an area of about 330 square meters and 2.5 full-time employees who restock and check goods. Here you will find everything a regular shop offers but also a kitchen where the staff can make pizza, sandwiches, salads and other dishes. During the summer months, customers can scoop up ice cream from a self-service ice cream bar. 

“There is so much potential here,” says Edvin Johansson. 

He got the idea for the unmanned shop when studying for a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering and Management, a programme he chose because of the vast opportunities it opened. To finance his studies and not have to take out a student loan, he sold eggs.

“I worked extra in a stable and there was also a poultry farm and one day it occurred to me that I could sell eggs in the community where I lived. So I put up a fridge on my mother’s property and set up an egg shop.” 

He later developed the concept into an egg delivery business instead. The business went well, with around 3000 subscribers across Linköping, but it was time-consuming. The idea of opening a food shop began to grow. There wasn’t one where he lived, in Ekängen outside Linköping, but there was great demand. The small community had grown, and the nearest food shop was ten kilometres away. But traditional food shops are rarely profitable in rural areas, largely due to the costs of checkout staff. But if the customers were to do everything themselves, it could work. 

“It was only a matter of time before someone else would open a chain of unmanned food shops and I thought that if I could do it, I should.”

Man and woman talking in a food warehouseNever still. Edvin Johansson is constantly on the move. He spends many hours in his car between the different shops. To relax, he gets on a tractor or a horse. When a new shop is built, he often does the groundwork and carpentry himself. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar

So he did just that. Once he got a building permit, he built the first shop by himself. To resolve the entry issue, he enlisted his childhood friend Emil Olsson, who is now a partner in the company and who programmed large parts of the access control system that ensures the connection to BankID.

“He was in Luxembourg working at Amazon, but I went there to get him,” says Edvin. 

Man standing outside a food shopThe basic idea of AutoMat is to make everyday life easier for people and give more people the opportunity to shop in places, such as the countryside, where there would otherwise not have been a shop. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar After that, it took off. A franchise concept was developed and today there are 35 shops from Timrå outside Sundsvall to Kåseberga in Scania. 

“I still run the one in Ekängen myself but this one here in Colonia is run by my mother and brother. They also run the one in Ebbepark. My mother runs the shop in Vallastaden. The rest are run by franchisees.” 

The total turnover of the chain is approximately SEK 90 million at present. But Edvin doesn’t rest on his laurels. More actors with similar concepts have emerged and the goal is now to become the market leader in the Nordic region. The basic idea itself is also constantly evaluated. The franchise business will probably decrease to make room for more own shops, and he recently bought two shops in Scania from a franchisee.

What do you think characterises a good entrepreneur?

“That you actually do something and not just talk.” 

He describes himself as stubborn and both a problem solver and a problem finder. 

“If you don’t see where the problems are, it’s difficult to do anything about them. It’s only when you’ve found them and scaled them down that you can address and solve them.” 

And to do that, in his opinion, you need a certain amount of imagination and foresight. Because the more problems you can predict in advance, the more time you can save. 

“I could have built the entire business on an app and then after a while I’d have wondered why I didn’t have so many customers. But I was tired of there being different apps for everything and felt that it was a bad idea in comparison to just using BankID which most people already had. I think I saved five years by not having to do the app adaptation and then having to do everything again. So it’s a good thing to be able to see into the future a little”.

What are your plans for the future?

“To keep doing things I enjoy. I’d like to do more horse riding than I do at the moment and to have my own horse business. I want to continue to develop AutoMat into a good foundation to build on. Maybe a new business idea can come to fruition in the future. I have plenty of ideas.”

A man in work clothes on a campus areaEdvin Johansson chose the Master of Science in Industrial Engineering and Management programme because it was versatile and had many different specialisations. But during his studies he launched AutoMat, and the business went so well that his studies were put on hold. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar

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