Nebraska couple test remotely controlled store

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — An entrepreneurial Nebraska couple hope customers will buy from their remotely controlled flower-in-a-pot shop that they acknowledge may seem a bit creepy for some customers.

Clark Plihal told the Lincoln Journal Star that he and his wife, Kelli, have been looking for a cost-effective way to take advantage of the demand for their specially designed Bump Up Pots. The pots are planted with flowers from their flower business, but they have a removable bottom so the flowers can be transferred to a larger pot or planted in the ground.

The couple wanted to open up a satellite store, but they’ve a hard time finding and training workers for their sales season, which runs from mid-April to late May. So they set up a shop without employees, using only computers, cameras and the Internet.

The Plihals created the prototype shop on a vacant lot in downtown Crete. The plastic sheeting over a metal frame makes it look like a greenhouse. Pots hang from racks and sit on shelves.

Inside is a wooden console with a large computer screen that acts as the control center for remote operation from the Plihals’ headquarters store in Shelton. Two Skype accounts let staffers in Shelton interact with customers in the Crete store.

Computerized air cylinders reposition surveillance cameras around the store and move the checkout iPad in and out of its cabinet as needed. The system can open and close the shop doors and lock them. It can even handle checks and cash, and provide change.

If the concept works, the Plihals plan to open seasonal stores next spring in Waverly, Gretna and maybe even Lincoln.

Clark Plihal already knows the store is unlikely to ever be operated totally remotely.

“We’ll probably never be able to run a remote location on those busy days” on the weekend, he said, but added that the remote operation could work well from Mondays through Thursdays.

The shop has lots of security cameras and can be locked, but Clark Plihal thinks theft is a nonissue, saying flower people “are the most honest people in the world.”

But there is what he calls the “creepiness” factor, in part because of all the cameras and having to do business with a person on a screen speaking from miles away.

“Nobody wants that feeling that they’re being watched,” he said.

“We think our elderly customer is going to find it creepy,” he said. “For young people it’s not an issue.”

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