On a sunny spring morning in the quiet village of Clifton in Derbyshire, a steady stream of people are making their way towards the Cock Inn. They are not early rising drinkers; the pub is not yet open. Instead they head around to the car park at the back.
Here sits the UK’s first “automated shop” – a bus shelter-sized giant vending machine selling everything from fresh milk and eggs to umbrellas and cat food.
Designed to look like a quaint village shop, yet with the advantage of more reliable opening hours, it is intended to lead a quiet, mechanised revolution in rural areas across Britain, filling the gap left by the widespread closure of traditional stores.
The Clifton SpeedyShop, as it is formally known, has been gratefully welcomed by residents, who haven’t had a village shop for more than a decade.
“They pretty much emptied it on Monday evening. It was great,” says Lorraine Garside, the landlady of the Cock, who admits that she has already fed her hungry customers using a loaf of bread bought from the machine.
“We haven’t had a village shop for about 13, 14 years and there are no bus services through the village any more, so if you want a pint of milk you have to walk into town if you don’t drive. It’s very reasonably priced – I think it’s marvellous.”
The machine is the brainchild of Peter Fox, a 50-year-old electrical engineer who used to live in a small village and became frustrated at coming home late from work to find nothing in the fridge. Having spent more than two years designing the prototype, he now hopes that similar machines can be rolled out nationally, but says he doesn’t have the resources to expand as quickly as he would like and is now actively seeking a business partner.
“I own all the intellectual property, but I don’t have a factory with 500 people and I can’t manufacture hundreds of these a week,” he says. “I certainly intend to roll it out myself anyway, and I’ve already got other machines in my factory which are almost complete … but obviously I can’t instantly start making hundreds of machines and sending them all over the UK. To do that I’ve either got to grow organically, which will take time, or find somebody who wants to jump in with me.”
Accepting cash or credit cards, the machine emails Mr Fox whenever it dispenses an item, so he can keep track of stock levels. Although he is reluctant to reveal just how good business has been so far, on the grounds that it is “early days”, he says there has been a “steady stream” of villagers buying everything from washing powder to toothpaste and bags of sugar.
Yesterday The Independent contributed to the machine’s coffers by buying that key household staple, a can of eight hot dogs (89p). Other items on offer included six eggs (£1.75), bacon (£2.69), a pair of sticky toffee puddings (£1.99) and a book of first class stamps (£3.60).
Although the machine is attracting more publicity than Clifton has received in years, most customers yesterday seemed happier to browse rather than buy. Barbara Goodwin, out for a walk with her husband and their two dogs, was among the window shoppers. “I’m not quite sure,” she says. “There is a general store a couple of miles away. But having said that, late at night, you don’t have to go far, and it’s very convenient.”
The machine carries another benefit for Mrs Garside: relieving the pressure on her pub to act as an informal grocer for naive tourists who rent self-catered cottages, only to be left baffled at the village’s lack of a Tesco Express. “You do get some southerners … who come up and think that every quaint village has a shop, and of course it doesn’t any more,” she says. “So now we have.”