Vending machines used to just swallow your money. Now they sell anything from drinks to live crabs – and can even offer a lifeline in disaster-hit countries.

Dan Gould
  • 1 april 2011

In the early 1990s, environmental campaigners in Japan used to highlight the fact that the nation’s 3.6m vending machines collectively used electricity equal to the output of one nuclear power station. Such a comparison holds extra poignancy today, of course, especially when you consider there are now twice the number of vending machines in the country that famously just can’t get enough of them. In fact, with the country experiencing rolling blackouts following the earthquake on 10 March, a grassroots campaign was launched to persuade Coca-Cola to switch off its 980,000 vending machines to help conserve energy. An executive from another drinks firm was quick to retaliate: “But vending machines constitute a lifeline for residents.”

Are vending machines now such an essential component of our instant-fix, consumer lifestyles that we can’t do without them, even in an emergency? “There is one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan,” says Jonathan Hilder, chief executive of the Automatic Vending Association. “They are the biggest vending market in the world and there is a machine on every street corner selling anything from drinks and live crabs to music and underwear. In the UK, there is a vending machine for every 55 people. But expect vending machines to get ever-more commonplace as they get ever-more sophisticated.”

Vending has come a long way since the ancient Greeks relied on Hero’s coin-operated machine to dispense holy water at temples. The first machines appeared in the UK during the late Victorian era, selling postcards before moving on to the ubiquitous machines we see today selling items such as chocolate bars, stamps and cigarettes (soon to be outlawed) that are found in railway stations and other busy public places.

The thing that defines these vending machines is their crude, mechanical simplicity and invariable reluctance – despite often receiving a Fonz-like whack from the frustrated purchaser’s clenched fist – to accept coins without rejecting at least a third of them. (The introduction of new 5p and 10p coins by the Royal Mint was recently delayed until next year after lobbying by the vending industry saying it would cost £17m to recalibrate all its machines.)

Hilder says the common perception that vending machines “don’t accept most coins” is now largely false. “The technology has come on enormously in recent years,” he says. “And don’t blame it all on the industry: 2.8% of £1 coins are forgeries.

“More than seven billion products are vended in the UK each year. The machines offer superb convenience in an age when we crave convenience.”

The staples will always be popular, but vending is undergoing a revolution in terms of the range of items machines offer, as well as how they are operated. For example, hot drinks are the most popular vended item in the UK today, with 60% of vending machines now found in the workplace. “It’s not so much that you can get a hot drink now – that’s been the case for years – but the variety on offer is fast increasing,” says Hilder. “In the past five years, there’s been a boom in larger drink sizes, with 9oz and even 12oz cups becoming the norm. And rather than rely on instant coffee, some machines are even grinding their own coffee beans.”

The gentrification of vending reflects our ever-demanding and discerning tastes elsewhere across food and drink retailing. But there is also another reason why the vending industry is keen to supersize and diversify its “offerings” – profit. The profit margin on a vended snack, such as a bar of chocolate or packet of crisps, is 30%-40%, says Hilder. But with coffee, the profit margin leaps to 70%.

It is beyond food-and-drink vending, though, where the real innovation is to be found. For example, vending machines are now used to distribute methadone in some prisons – not for the convenience of the prisoner, but, by using retinal and fingerprint scanners on the machines, wardens say they can safely ensure it goes to the right person. A Taiwanese company recently developed a vending machine with face-recognition cameras to help it recommend hair-growing tonics and razors to men. And a Canadian firm is developing a “remote-pharmacy dispensing” machine with customers speaking to a real-life pharmacist via videophone before scanning their ID to get their medicines.

In fact, improving security is now one of the principal reasons why retailers say they are turning to vending machines: Selfridges has trialled vending designer jeans following a spate of thefts. And increased security also allows retailers to sell things they would never dare normally sell over the counter to the public. Somewhat perplexingly, gold bars are now even being vended in a handful of international airports.

Hilder believes the blending together of security and convenience will mean the vending machine becomes an integral component of our 24-hour, instant-access lifestyles in the future. As mobile-phone technology improves, and payment systems move towards “wave pay” (as with London’s Oyster card), vending points in public and workplaces will be used both as places to buy goods directly, but also as delivery points for online shopping – a cross between a left-luggage locker and a conventional vending machine.

“Most new vending machines now are touch-screen, giving users a wealth of information and options,” says Hilder. “And once a universal wave-pay system is adopted – which will be about five to 10 years away – the options will be incredible for what can be vended.”

But until that day arrives, food and drink will continue to dominate vending. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola revealed a new drinks vending machine it claimed had been in development for six years. Called the “Freestyle”, the touch-screen machine offers up to 106 varieties of beverage. At its launch in Atlanta, the company’s director of marketing offered some bold claims for the machine: “To our knowledge there is nothing like this in the world. This is the future of fountain dispensing.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.


Turn Any Wearable Into A Mental Health Tracker

Fitness / Sport
Work Yesterday

Amazon Is Experimenting With A 30-Hour Work Week

The online retailer is launching a pilot program that will allow a technical team to work with a considerably shortened schedule

Fitness / Sport Yesterday

How The Rio Olympics Stood For More Than Just Games

PSFK rounds out the Rio Games with our picks for the finest moments beyond sports


Get PSFK's Latest Report: Future of Work

See All
Retail Yesterday

Mobile Travel App Embraces Cognitive Computing

The Orlando Tourism Board is looking to IBM Watson to provide personalized local recommendations for visitors


Adam Wells

Design Thinking For Travel (& Space)

Automotive Yesterday

Bike-Friendly Apartment Building For Swedish Cyclists

A residential space is being designed for commuters to easily transport goods

Advertising Yesterday

Nike Takes Over An Entire City Block With A Giant Running Track

The Unlimited Stadium is shaped like a 100-meter sole print of the brand's LunarEpic sneaker

Gaming Yesterday

Fortune Cookie Service Brings Bad News To Your Doorstep

To promote their new delivery service Blackbox, the creators of Cards Against Humanity are delivering unfortunate messages in an edible form


Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders

PSFK Op-Ed august 23, 2016

Modern Workplace Culture: No More Fat Cats Or Kissing Ass

Samar Birwadker, CEO & Co-Founder of Good & Co, on designing shared organizational values to optimize employee happiness and success

PSFK Labs Yesterday

New Mentorship Ecosystems Benefit All Levels Of An Organization

PSFK’s Future of Work report explores how technology is being leveraged to support cross-team communication

Arts & Culture Yesterday

This Picture Frame Could Be The Lava Lamp For A New Generation

Slow Dance makes real objects appear to move in slow motion

Work Yesterday

Editorial Roundtable: How Will Companies Staff The Workplace Of The Future?

Managed By Q, Soma, Workbar, Primary, AltSchool and thinkPARALLAX examine the ways that a people-first workplace might disrupt the job hiring process

Arts & Culture Yesterday

Airport Mural Puts Passengers In The Clouds

The installation in an Amsterdam terminal lets travelers float through a series of billowing 3D digital shapes

Automotive Yesterday

DevBot Is An Intelligent, Driverless, Electric Car

The unmanned test vehicle from RoboRace is a preview of upcoming AI race models

Augmented / Virtual Reality Yesterday

AR Ski Goggles Make Racing Down The Slopes Even More Immersive

Israeli startup RideOn weaves digital overlays into the thrill of skiing with an unconventional pair of protective eyewear


Rio Olympics
Innovation Coverage From The Rio Games

Advertising Yesterday

Japan Wants To Make 2020 Olympic Medals From Recycled Electronic Waste

The Tokyo Games could showcase the first-ever gold, silver and bronze awards made from discarded phones and computers

Culture Yesterday

This Small Town Has Become A Hide-and-Seek World Championship Destination

An old abandoned village in Northern Italy has become a massive playground for over one hundred competitive players

Design Yesterday

Garmin’s New Smartwatch Is Challenging The Luxury Market

The brand adds a premium version of its popular multi-sport trainer to its accessories collection

No search results found.