Vending machines are undergoing a dramatic re-design that could change the way we think about convenience. At their core, vending machines have always had associations with novelty and innovation; whether they are dispensing gold bars or French fries, they have a special ‘wow factor’ that grabs a unique kind of attention. Aside from their playful and imaginative potential, vending machines are also the kings of practicality when properly designed to anticipate customers’ needs. With our lives evermore permeated by technology, social media, and the “internet of things,” these aspects are becoming integral components to the way we make purchases, and vending machines are the ideal mediums to capitalize on our interconnectedness.
Vending machines are a truly ancient technology (Wise Vending Group 2014) with their roots stemming from the first-century AD when the Hero of Alexandria invented the first coin-operated machines to dispense holy water. The sophisticated combination of levers, weights, and valves went through countless iterations on its way to becoming the ubiquitous automated sales-point it is today; they were used in the 1600s to dispense tobacco in English pubs, and later as a method to distribute written works that had been banned from publication. By 1867, a patent was awarded for what would become the first fully automatic vending machine, which was built with the purpose of dispensing stamps, and it was not until 1888 that they were first used to sell bulk candy.
Today, vending machines are a commonplace global retail staple with technology that can support the sale of anything from fresh crabs in China (Guilford 2013) to Moët at Selfridges in the U.K. (Salkeld 2013). Although North Americans are some of the most technologically friendly people on the planet, vending machine use has not been as thoroughly adopted as in other parts of the world. However, we could be entering a new era for the fully automated customer sales experience. Vending machines can offer a unique position with their low cost and high visibility. They forego traditional labour costs in favour of a fully customizable and easily adaptable model. Their ease of use, and low-maintenance structure are just some of their advantages: vending machines offer a completely new way to integrate multiple marketing platforms into one perfectly curated and consistent customer experience.
Campaigns like the Coca-Cola “hug me” machine or the Molson Canadian “beer fridge” have shown the creativity and flawless blending that can happen when a company combines its products with social media. As seen with both “hug me” and the “beer fridge,” this combination coupled with a smart vending machine can be used as a marketing tool to forge an emotional connection between patrons and product. These fully customized robotic machines allow businesses to create a unique and versatile sales experience that can enhance the image of a brand. Companies are beginning to realize that vending machines can sync their advertising, social media presence, brand image, and sales experience, all into one highly memorable unit.
We are witnessing the resurgence and re-invention of the vending machine into something new, something that is closer to a total-campaign machine where customers are able to have a personalized and multi-layered exposure to their products. Touchscreens, digital payments, social media linking, and their extreme speed allow vending machines to be the perfect fit in our more digitally integrated lives. Past are the days of the utilitarian vending machine and now we are looking forward to a total-campaign machine, which combines innovation and experience to provide new possibilities for businesses. In an era of pop-up shops and holidays devoted to online shopping, it is not inconceivable that someday vending machines will become the wedge between brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce.
Guilford, Gwynn (2013), “China’s Newest Innovation: Live Crab Vending Machines,” The Atlantic.
Salkeld, L. (2013), “Selfridges installs the world's first champagne dispenser,” Daily Mail Online.
Wise Vending Group (2014), “A Brief History of Vending Machines,” The National Vending Service Operator.