Vending machines invoke new technology to attract shoppers

Customer service is the cornerstone of a retail business. So could the vending machine industry really make people more easily give their money to a machine rather than a person with a friendly smile?

The secret lies in technology and convenience, according to the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), which represents the vending machine industry.

With gas prices and the recession not sparing even this $30 billion segment of the retail market, vending merchants are looking at swanky machines that dispense everything from deep-dish pizzas to prescription drugs to nab more customers.

The new machines are a far cry from the plain Jane ones that simply spit out newspapers, soda and candy. They can serve you a hot meal of macaroni and cheese or even whip out a freshly baked bread.

The one that's really setting the market abuzz is a machine that has a hip, touch-screen technology akin to the iPhone. Instead of a glass front displaying the bag of chips or cookies, there's a 46-inch Samsung LCD touch screen panel featuring 3D images of products. Scheduled for a test launch in select northeast markets in December, the machine is a joint effort between Kraft, Samsung and Crane.

"It's dramatically different from the vending machines you see now," said Mike Miller, director of marketing at Kraft, in a phone interview. The machine has an embedded PC that connects to a network through an Ethernet or cell phone connection. The screen has so much space that when it's not vending products, it beams promotional messages.

Well, it's about time that the industry spun out some changes. There are 7 million vending machines in the U.S. , according to NAMA, which works out to be close to one machine for every 44 people.

But the vending machine industry in Japan clearly has us beat: That country has one machine for every 23 people, selling everything from Asahi beer to iPods and porn magazines.

"We have caught up a lot with the introduction of a cashless payment system," said NAMA spokesperson Jackie Clark in a phone interview with WalletPop. And with Americans getting busier than ever, Clark sees these machines becoming as integral to our society as they are in Japan.

But will we ever get to a point where these machines become the mainstay of retail business? Probably not.

It's nice to be able to buy tampons and panties without interaction with a stranger. But there's no way a machine could ever replace that familiar face at your neighborhood grocery or drugstore.
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