Lanthandlar: a revolution in rural retail

Don’t waste your time looking for the familiar logos of your favourite supermarket; instead, ask a local for directions to the local lanthandeln.

If you find yourself travelling outside of Skåne’s urban centers—and, assuming you have the time to do so, we would really recommend it—you’ll likely find yourself in need of some supplies. But don’t waste your time looking for the familiar logos of your favourite supermarket; instead, ask a local for directions to the local lanthandeln.

For most of the C20th (and a good chunk of the C21st) food retail had a dominant dynamic: larger firms, larger stores, larger parking lots. It seems somewhat ironic with hindsight, but this was done in the name of convenience: back when pretty much everyone could afford to run their own car, it made a certain amount of logistical sense to do one “big shop” once a week, loading up with more than one could realistically carry on a bike or on foot. These bigger stores, often located on cheap land between population centers, out-competed smaller local stores, as so-called “economies of scale” and monopoly power kept prices low, and rural populations in particular became dependent on these “big box” stores as well as the cars they drove.

It all worked fine, right up until it didn’t: the spiking fuel costs of the 2020s meant that driving out of the village to do your shopping came at a significant cost, even for those who weren’t thinking about their emissions profile, and the local alternatives had long since gone out of business. Furthermore, the globalisation of food production, of which the big box stores were the ultimate expression, had traded convenience for disconnection: disconnection from the land, from those who worked on the land, and from the things they brought forth from it. The result was frivolous consumption, waste, unhealthy eating habits, pointless packaging, and ever-shrinking margins for farmers. What had once been the apogee of cheap convenience for everyone was suddenly not just inconvenient but also unaffordable and environmentally destructive.

As you will see on your trip around Skåne, particularly out in the rural villages, the supermarkets of yore have been replaced by what are traditionally called lanthandlar (literally “country trades”). These stores come in different shapes and sizes, depending on local needs and traditions, but have a few principles in common: they primarily sell foodstuffs produced in the region, prioritizing food from the immediate vicinity, and they are committed to preserving the social aspect of local stores. As such, many lanthandlar are also home to cafés, galleries, and activity centers; talk to any villager over the age of forty or so, and they will tell you with much enthusiasm how the spread of lanthandlar has revitalised countryside life. Most also abide by a strict co-operative financial model, whereby local food producers own half of the store while the staff own the other half. This ensures that the farmers get compensated more fairly for their products, while still keeping prices low enough to ensure that customers return. 

One of the early pioneers of this movement was the Torna Hällestad Lanthandel: by combining a store with a restaurant and event space, the business has become the social heart of this small village outside of Lund. Stop by for a taste of the local dandelion wine during spring and summer, or taste their chanterelle and Jerusalem artichoke soup in early autumn! But almost every village has at least one lanthandel, and you’ll always be assured of a friendly welcome, as well as the very best of the local and regional produce.

Of course, the corporate model still clings on in the bigger cities (where the transport issues are not so pressing), and in a few liminal locations that cater to those who have been unwilling to give up “the old ways”. One such spot is Burlöv, a municipality just beyond the border of Greater Malmö which was formerly known primarily for its shopping mall, which chose instead to pursue the dream of the fully-automated and always-open supermarket. Inside the former shopping mall, you can find all kinds of foodstuffs stored inside vast refrigerators and freezers, some of which (e.g. the exotic fruit, meat, and tobacco section) require a retina scan to be opened due to the high prices of the goods contained within, and the expense of running the refrigeration systems.

The place can be quite spooky, particularly in the early hours of the morning, when you might be the only soul about—but don’t even think about walking out without paying, as the store employs a fully automated anti-theft drone squad (which may or may not be armed, pending the results of an upcoming local election). The Burlöv megastore survives in large part due to its friendly relations with the Staffanstorp Nuclear Organisation, from which it gains the rare privilege of low electricity rates which keeps the fridges and freezers going, as well as a loyal customer base. But don’t worry, the SNO is nuclear in name only—so at least the wasted energy comes from renewable sources!

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