You can see what the supermarket of the future could look like in Altengottern. The place is located between Erfurt and Kassel on the northern edge of the Hainich National Park, one of the largest beech forests in Europe. But as beautiful as nature is here, the shopping facilities were bad for a long time. That all changed in February 2020 when Emma’s Day and Night Market opened.

If you want to shop here, you need a customer card and pin. He can then enter the store around the clock, seven days a week. There are around 1,000 different products on the shelves, including fruit and vegetables, baked goods and meat products from the region. Customers scan their purchases themselves and pay digitally. There are numerous cameras hanging from the ceiling for monitoring purposes, employees only come once a day to replenish the shelves.

The years of development have paid off, the concept of the digital and almost fully automatic corner shop works and is now being expanded. “We’re about to open seven more stores,” says Peter John. The founder and managing director of Emma’s day and night market is on the A73 on the A73 to inspect the building at the time of the phone call. Most of the stores have already been largely completed, but the ongoing delivery difficulties make precise planning difficult, so John has been waiting for shelves for some time now.

Other entrepreneurs are opening similar markets, 17 are currently being planned in Thuringia alone. More are to be added, because the state government supports the development of so-called “24-hour village shops” with its own funding program, which has been extended until this month.

In other rural regions there is just as much interest in shopping opportunities being offered in small towns again. The Bremen-based online supermarket “My Enso” has also developed self-service shops for this purpose. Eight branches have already opened, and “Tante Enso” branches are currently being planned or under construction at 21 other locations.

The big retailers have also recognized the gap and are taking up the booming concept. For example, the Hessian supermarket chain Tegut. Under the name Teo, eight boxes measuring 50 square meters have now been set up as a test in the Fulda district. “We want to continue to grow in the Rhine-Main area and launch twenty new boxes this year,” says a spokesman. Additional “plug-in modules” such as charging stations for e-bikes or a book exchange are also planned.

Despite the new competition, the market is big enough: John estimates the number of suitable communities at 4,500, Rewe even speaks of around 8,000 “underserved settlement areas in Germany”, in which people have to travel very long distances to buy groceries every day. While the group otherwise calculates that normal local purchase markets can only be operated profitably in communities with at least 6,000 inhabitants, the company is also trying out the self-service concept in smaller towns. With the test, Rewe board member Peter Maly wants to “find answers to the question of future-oriented local supply in rural areas far from the city centre”.

But Rewe has apparently chosen the wrong federal state for this. Because the “Nahkauf Box” with which the concept is to be tested for a year was opened in Pettstadt in March. The 2,000-person community is located in Upper Franconia and is therefore subject to the Bavarian rules for closing shops and Sunday rest. Therefore, the Bamberg district office ordered a few days after the opening that the box had to close again on Sundays.

This threatens the end of the digital corner shops in Bavaria, even before they really start. “If the current Sunday closure were to remain, it would have a direct impact on the business concept, in the worst case even leading to the failure of the pilot project,” explains Rewe.

“We need Sunday business to survive in small towns,” agrees John. The Thuringian is currently also expanding to Bavaria. A new market is scheduled to open in Altenthann in June, but there are now also problems in the Regensburg district because of the alleged disruption of the Sunday rest. After a visit last year, Bavaria’s Economics Minister Hubert Aiwanger raved about the country’s first digital supermarket: “Thanks to artificial intelligence, shopping is possible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

“Tante M” in the Upper Palatinate, whose operators were the first to implement the concept in Bavaria, is now no longer allowed to open on all 365 days. The responsible district office from Neustadt an der Waldnaab initially tolerated the Sunday opening, but then banned it on instructions from Munich.

Sunday rest is particularly important in large parts of the CSU. According to the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, Prime Minister Söder is said to have personally intervened against the Sunday opening. But criticism of this is also growing in politics. The FDP accuses the Bavarian state government of refusing to make progress and calls for new rules, after all the shops are quasi “walk-in machines”. From a competition point of view, the blockade attitude is questionable, since petrol stations are also allowed to open and are used by customers on Sundays and public holidays as normal instead of supermarkets. They even have sales staff, but John would even concede that in his Emma stores the stocking with new goods on Sundays, which otherwise takes place about once a day, is no longer necessary.

In the meantime, however, things have also started to move at the CSU. Members of the state parliament like Holger Dremel, in whose constituency the Rewe project is located, are campaigning for adjustments to the public holiday law. There was also a video conference with the responsible Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, affected district administrators and mayors. In coordination with the ministries concerned, “intensive examinations” are now being carried out as to whether and, if so, how the operation of digital mini-supermarkets on Sundays and public holidays can be made possible in the future, the Ministry of the Interior announced. It is not yet certain when the review of the legal situation will be completed.

At least for the Rewe in Pettstadt there is now an exception: the municipal council, in coordination with the district office, has allowed the opening on Sundays and public holidays. In Parkstein, Upper Palatinate, however, the community decided against it. The argument about the opening times in Bavaria continues.

“This isn’t about turning the holiday law on its head,” says Dremel. “In the case of the vending machine supermarkets, I would like to limit them to rooms in which there is insufficient supply, in which it may simply not be economically worthwhile to operate a market with staff.” The 24-hour supermarkets should remain an exception or a supplement and do not open permanently everywhere. “That would infiltrate the big supermarkets,” says Dremel. And that would eventually cost jobs.

In fact, the small self-service shops have long since been planned not only in remote villages. For example, Tegut also relies on train stations, schools, hotels and “Tante Enso” also offers its stores “as a supply solution in urban districts”, where the focus is now “on the 24/7 system and hip products”.

John also shares the concern that the new concepts will mean that staff will also disappear in existing supermarkets. “That will happen, but we don’t want to force the trend,” says the Thuringian. He sees Emma’s day and night market as a social enterprise, so he only wants to open new branches in small towns, but is slowly reaching the limits. “We still have a lot more potential, but that’s not possible because of the financial resources,” says John. He would like more support from politicians. “There are thousands of funding programs, but we don’t fit in everywhere,” says the entrepreneur.