Friday, May 28, 2010


When I was a kid, I was completely intrigued by the idea of eating in an automat. There was something magical about the concept of plugging a nickel in the slot, opening up the little door, and removing a bowl of mac and cheese, or a slide of cherry pie.

Alas, they had pretty much died out by the time I had a nickel in hand,  so I had to settle for the more pedestrian snack machine,. WhBanks of Automatic Windows where food was purchasedere it’s so darned easy to drop in some coin and press a couple of buttons and find that what’s dropped down is B3 – a KitKat – and not C3, the M&M’s you really wanted.

Even if you get the M&M’s, it’s not quite the high romance of the automat.

So I’m all for buying stuff out of vending machines.

But I don’t know how much coin I’ll be dropping into the new age and/or ultra-pricey vend-o-matics that are coming into use. (Info source: NY Times.)

Fortunately, I’m not a smoker, but I would definitely be weirded out by the Japanese cigarette machines that have “have electronic eyes that evaluate customers’ skin and wrinkles to determine whether they are old enough to buy tobacco.” As someone on the other side of the Great Divide in terms of being carded, I now make occasional inquiries about the age when “senior discount” kicks in, and am supremely gratified when someone evaluates my skin and wrinkles and thinks I’m too young.

The Times article mentions nightclubs with “vending machines with flat irons” for hair defrizzing. I was picturing someone swiping their credit card, buying a flat iron, then trying to figure out how to iron their hair on the ladies’ room sink. Not to mention what do you do with the flat iron once you’re done? It wouldn’t exactly fit in a nightclub type of handbag. But, in fact, my further research (going to the google) helped me find out that the hair defrizzers are wall-mounted coin-ops. You put your money in, the defrizzer’s freed up, and you get to defrizz away. (I won’t bother to be on the lookout, as I can honestly say that defrizzing my hair hasn’t exactly been anything I’ve had to contend with in my long life.)

Defrizzing aside, in Abu Dhabi, you can use a vending machine to purchase gold bars for over $1K/ounce.

Think of all the times you had to gob-smack a candy or cigarette machine because you lost a few quarters. Imagine the kind of attack you’d mount if you plugged in $1K, only to see the gold bar dangling half way out of its coil, but not quite dropping.

That would be my worry if I wanted to make an impulse buy of a gold bar instead of a Heath Bar. But losing $1K in a rogue vending machine is, apparently, a misplaced fear.

Today’s super-duper vending machines:

…have touch screens instead of buttons, facades that glow and pulse, and technology designed to stop vending machine rage. Sensors ensure that your credit card is not charged unless the selected item has dropped.

Thank god for those fail-safe sensors! Wouldn’t want a sheikh to have to give the vending machine a shake-down.

And nice to learn that the old job-of-last-resort standby, working retail, may be going the way of the buggy whip maker and the Pittsburgh steelworker.

As Gower Smith, whose company, ZoomSystems, has created about 1,000 automated kiosks called ZoomShops, put it, “A ZoomShop costs less than an employee.”

The Body Shop, Best Buy, Sephra, Apple – they all sell products through vending machines (which have been rebranded as “automated retail stores”).

I don’t suppose that making returns is a trip to the beach.

In a brick and mortar, you can walk it in; in online, you can just put “it” back in the package it came in and send “it” on its way.

Well, I’m sure they’ll figure it out without me.

I guess it’s all part of our wonderful trend toward self-service everything. The Times article cites a 2008 study done by NCR in which 86% of North Americans surveyed “were more likely to do business with companies offering some sort of self-service.”

(Yes and no, from my point of view. I do buy a lot online, but I also like to go to my local hardware and drugstores, and find a pleasant, smiling person – or even a snarling grump -  willing to direct me or even walk me to whatever it is I’m looking for.)

The economics sure seem to support the automated retail store juggernaut.

Not only do they have a wonderfully economical form-factor that lets them ring up an order of magnitude (at least) more in sales per square foot than a boring old mall store. There’s the bennie that if they don’t perform, you don’t  have to close the store. You just unplug it, put it on a cart, and roll it someplace else. And there’s less “shrinkage” due to shoplifting and employees taking 5-finger discounts.

Meanwhile, the old standbys of the vending biz – snacks and the like – are going buggy whip:

… because of trends toward more healthful eating, increased cigarette regulation, declining industrial work forces and more competition from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores open late or 24 hours.

Sniff, sniff. Sort of makes me want to go find a vending machine and by a pack of trail mix.

And I don’t suppose that any of this means that the Horn & Hardart Automat will be making a comeback any time soon?

1 comment:

John said...

Two sort of interesting data points:

1. On a recent trip to Santa Clara, CA, the gift shop in my hotel had been replaced by a gigantic vending machine. It sold magazines, toiletries, snacks, and microwaveable foods, and took debit cards.

2. The automat never went away in Amsterdam, where the partying hordes can stop by Febo and shove a coin into a slot to get a hamburger or hot dog and eat it while standing on the street.

There goes another set of jobs for teens...