Vending the rules

Vending the rules: the vast and vibrant future of unattended retail and services

The first vending machine was invented in London in the 1880s. The godfather of unattended vending, Percival Everitt’s postcard machine provided a solution to a common problem, giving people somewhere they could buy postal cards at a time when everything was closed, on a Sunday. This tells you all you need to know about unattended retail –  convenience is key. 

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and vending machines are enjoying something of a renaissance, with machinery popping up in more and more unexpected places – from currency exchange machines and library book machines to cupcake ATMs and even machines that dispense one-off artworks. A report from Research and Markets suggest that the intelligent vending machine market could grow by more than 28% in five years, and could be worth $26.8bn by 2024. Thanks to smart technology and better-than-ever connectivity, the modern vending machine has come a long way since the snack machines you may remember from your local leisure centre… 

The joy of vending machines 

When you tap your payment card on a modern vending machine, you don’t just get a product – you get an experience, designed to spark satisfaction and surprise. No doubt inspired by this, for Christmas 2019 Topshop Oxford Circus chose a giant vending machine as part of its ‘Tokyo Arcade’- themed Christmas gift shopping experience. Inspired by Japanese kawaii or ‘cute’ culture, at the check-out customers were gifted a token with which to play and win everything from discounts to prizes. Another example comes from a US bakery offering a ‘cupcake ATM’ that dispenses red velvet, lemon meringue and peanut butter treats via a candy pink hole in the wall. 

Taking things from pink to blue, 20th January or ‘Blue Monday’ 2020 saw Dutch brand KLM take the surprise and delight factor to the next level at train stations across the UK to brighten commuters’ moods. Commuters were asked to enter their mood into the KLMood Booster via an emoji, in return they were given caramel waffles, massages and even return flights, gifts that embody the essence of Gezelligheid: a Dutch term for a relaxed or cosy situation. 

When it comes to vending machines, the more unexpected, the better. In the US, converted ‘Art-O-Mat’ vintage cigarette machines dispense unique works by local artists. LA has a machine that dispenses caviar. Where caviar isn’t enough, Dubai has a machine that checks the value of gold every ten seconds and dispenses gold bars in exchange for cash. 

Unattended transport 

Unattended technology has significantly disrupted the transport market in virtually every area. 

Ahead of the game, back in 2011, Japan pioneered the implementation of   10,000 vending machines designed to charge electric cars, helping to overcome ‘range anxiety’ - that the cars are unable to travel far enough – felt by many consumers. It provided a potentially simple solution to a complex problem, demonstrating the usefulness of vending technology. 

Along the transport line, last year Auto Trader set up a car vending machine in Spitalfields London. Equipped with a custom-made point-of-sale system, key-release system, integrated payment and door-release mechanisms, the machine offered a car via contactless payments. 

Broadening use 

In retail, we’ve had self-scanners and self-checkouts for years, but unattended technology is bringing convenience into new areas where it is sorely needed. As seamlessness becomes more important in the consumer space, vending machines  offer a quick solution without long queues or the need for face-to-face contact. 

Take pharmacies. By giving patients access to prescriptions outside of business hours, pharmacy vending machines enable people to collect their prescription and over-the-counter medications as and when they need them.  

Library book vending machines placed in hospitals give people access to entertainment and escapism when they need it most. They are also being used to encourage children who are reluctant readers. 

Machines that offer more practical solutions – such as key cutting, breathalysing and currency exchange – further appeal to our need for seamlessness and convenience, offering a quick solution without overcomplicating the situation. 

Whatever next? 

The future of the intelligent vending machine market looks promising with opportunities in the office, community buildings, retail stores, and restaurants. An enhanced customer shopping experience is one of the major drivers for increasing the adoption of the vending machine. Also, the rapid adoption of contactless and mobile payments, pioneered by Barclaycard back in 2007, has helped fuel their rise in recent years. 

There are also untold opportunities in the digital products space; what if you could scan a QR code or embedded NFC chip on a poster in the underground and automatically download a book or album? With advanced technologies such as smartphone interaction allowing facial, gesture, and voice control system, the future for vending appears bright. It feels like only yesterday you’d be lucky to get a snack from a vending machine, but it appears the shiny new vend trend is here to stay.