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.

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.”

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