How vending machines live up to the four pillars of sustainability

A vending machine of tomorrow can be described with just three adjectives: smart, digitally-connected and, with no doubt, sustainable. It will sell or give away just everything, for versatile currency, with manifold purposes. A dispenser will definitely go beyond the “pay-and-get on-the-go” scheme, transcending to an eco-focused, digitally powered installation that would respond to consumer needs just like a human salesperson (or even better) and at the same time revolve around the four pillars of sustainability: environmental responsibility, cultural/knowledge vitality, social good/well-being and economic health. How do vending machines of today dip into the “smart” sustainable future across these four areas? 

“Dispensing” economic benefits

Apart from social good and environmental benefits, vending machines can be quite profitable. We are now witnessing a recovery of vending business following the decrease in previous years. The industry sales fell 18.3% between 2007 and 2011 to the level of 90-s in the U.S., before slightly rising last year, to $19.3 billion, according to 2013 State Of The Vending Industry Report for the USA by Automatic Merchandiser. Apparently, this was made possible due to the introduction of smart dispensers that accept credit cards and mobile payments, feature interactive touch-screens and entertaining elements. The shift towards cashless payments is inevitable—the survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in 2012 revealed that 43% adults in the USA could do without cash for a whole week. According to the market researcher Frost & Sullivan, there were 500,000 to 700,000 so-called smart vending machines in 2012, and the team behind the study predicts that there’ll be 2 million of such units by 2018.

Technology is driving the industry, helping it thrive. Spending on providing the machines with web connectivity, its vending operators can cut logistics costs since they are able to track the dispenser online and organize a virtual centralized system for restocking the machines instead of sending people for a check-up. Some operators can reduce their truck fleets by 40 percent, Bloomberg writes. The source adds that to upgrade an older machine with web connectivity an operator should pay about $500, while a brand new smart machine costs around $10,000, double the price of a conventional one. Thus, vending units can bring economy from cashless payments as well as easy  and affordable upgrades.

Supporting environmental responsibility

Conscious consumers tend to opt for more environmentally friendly solutions. This relates not only to the manufacturing history of a product but also to how they manage the purchased goods, how retailers sell the products, etc. This trend got mirrored in the vending machines domain as well. Below, there are three examples that illustrate the consumers’ desire to buy goods from a “greener” kiosk and use it to swap and recycle items.

In mid-2012, Coca-Cola Japan unveiled the A011 ultra-energy-saving vending machine that managed to keep drinks cool without using electricity for up to 16 hours a day. The unit uses vacuum insulated material and air-tight doors to retain the cold during daytime. According to the press statement, the machine’s daytime energy use is reduced by 95%, the unit is powered at night, “when there is relative surplus power capacity.”  Japanese farmers also try their best to minimize the environmental impact—they have adopted the mujin hanbai trend, arranging unmanned stalls that sell unmarketable vegetable and fruit, all to reduce the waste. These are both unsupervised baskets (consumers can take the products and leave the payment in a can) and veggie vending machines that allow access only after the payment is made.

During the NY Fashion Week this year, Plastics Make it Possible invited people in the city to trade in plastic bottles for a limited edition t-shirt designed by Allison Parris. The tees were manufactured from recycled plastic—the initiatives aimed to illustrate that the waste can reincarnate in a chic way. The same idea is behind the reverse vending units by the UK company reVend—the machines accept used fluorescent light bulbs, which must not be thrown away with other waste, and gives the users a voucher for a free cup of coffee.

The Swap-O-Matic vending machine roots in the shared economy trend—it allows people to donate, receive, or swap any items from their homes. The vending unit by Lina Fenequito allows to put the item inside one of the thirteen compartments behind glass doors that are digitally locked. There are so-called credits that can be earned for donating goods and spent on getting the items from the machine—each user has 3 credits to start with. The unit with a retro-inspired design is managed via a digital interface and has a flag system to prevent potential misuse. The project was seeking support through Kickstarter in mid-2012, but did not achieve the goal of $135,000—it generated less than a half of the pledged amount, $57,110. The people behind the project wanted to improve the machine to get more support from potential investors—in summer, developers asked the public to fill out a survey to help build a better version of the machine.

Delivering cultural/knowledge vitality

The role of a vending machine is to deliver essentials when and where people need it. These are not just food or drinks (in their many forms and versions), today it’s also knowledge and diverse tools that allow to access intellectual assets. The goods that are dispensed (not necessarily sold) through a vending machine are now ranging from computers to inspirational quotations.

As a nod to the bright past of paper books, the Biblio-Mat retro-looking vending machine, created for antiquarian bookshop The Monkey’s Paw in Toronto, dispenses random vintage books—consumers have to pay $2. With the global twitterisation, pieces of wisdom are better digested when come in smaller portions—a concept vending machine, “Quote Vendor” by Taiwanese designer Alice Wang, dispenses tiny plastic bottles that contain a stripe of paper with a quote written on it. Below the quote looking like a message in a fortune cookie, one may find a title of the book and the author’s name. The consumer can find the full-size book to read the rest.

The generation of units selling printed literature is on the edge of extinction. Now, digital versions of books are on the rise, and sellers gladly capitalize on this trend. In 2011, Japan-based company, Glory Ltd., presented an e-book vending machine prototype that debuted at Tokyo Ebook Fair—the unit sold QR codes that, when scanned by a mobile device, delivered the electronic book. A similar idea was put behind the 48-hour prototype project, the Digital Gum Goods vending machine, that dispensed all kinds of digital content ranging from e-books to games and songs via NFC-technology, using a Samsung Galaxy Tab. Recently, Google Japan has also leveraged the power of near field communication, rolling out three Google Play vending machines that dispense a selection of 18 free and paid games for devices that run on Android 4.0. The units can now be found outside the Parco department store in Shibuya.

Vending machines are also good in delivering tech equipment. Facebook is letting IT employees at its headquarters to retrieve a plethora of computer peripherals and electronics ranging from keyboards to cables through the special vending units. To get the item, an employee is just asked to swipe his or her ID card before the kiosk. All the requests are recorded to ensure that the employee takes a reasonable number of products. The LaptopsAnytime kiosks allow consumers to get a computer device at the spot where they need it, not to bring it there from home. The system was tested by Philadelphia’s Drexel University that allowed its students to get MacBook laptops from the special vending machines. Students could take the device for up to five hours, checking in with their university card. The laptop’s hard drive gets cleaned after the device is returned, and the battery is automatically recharged for the next rent.

Focusing on social good/well-being

While some brands use vending machines for generating revenues, there’re also kiosks that are focused on cultivating tolerance and support.

In mid-2012, the W+K 12 team that includes a dozen of creative people from the Wieden+Kennedy agency introduced a unique dispenser, developed specially for the “Insert Change Here” event held by the agency in Portland, USA. The vending machines dispensed modernized replicas of famous artworks for charitable donations. As much as $4,000+ was collected during the event, and the proceeds went to the Sun Community Schools.

The charity-focused vending machine from UNICEF invited people in NYC to buy… dirty water from poor parts of the world where water conservation has become one of the hot-button issues. The kiosk offered eight “flavors” that represented various diseases such as malaria, cholera, typhoid, dengue, hepatitis, dysentery, salmonella, and yellow fever that are spread through contaminated water. People could donate some money by “buying” the water either with change or through mobile payments. The text on the kiosk informed the people around that “just a dollar provides a child with 40 days of clean drinking water.” All the proceeds were donated to UNICEF to support water-centric projects in deprived regions.

Smart vending machines also can help adopt healthier eating habits with facial recognition. Three years ago, Kraft Foods introduced a kiosk in the USA that could scan the appearance of the consumers to determine if it was a child or an adult, male or female, and then suggested food options and free dinner recipes. The machine was designed as a tool that could help reduce obesity and switch to a healthier diet. With other health purposes, Medbox, biometrically-operated vending machines, dispenses medical marihuana in the U.S. states that legalized the drug. The kiosks, which provide individuals with the medication after scanning their fingerprints, are installed in pharmacies, prisons, hospitals, and alternative medicine clinics and other related locations across a number of states.

Consumer safety is also part of well-being. Launched to supplement biking-sharing programs, HelmetHub sloar-powered kiosks allow cyclists to rent the prime biking essential, a helmet, on the go. The service was initially introduced at four bike-sharing stations in Boston—by this month, there set to be additional sixteen stations launched. Each of the kiosks installed in Boston is packed with thirty-six helmets. Consumers can receive one of the helmets for around $2 and also purchase the item if they want. Users return the rented helmets at the same location where they bring back bikes. On the return, the helmets are checked for safety inspection and sanitation before sending back to the renting system.

Alternative currency for vending machines

Money is not the only asset that can purchase goods. As part of their promotional efforts, brands offer ways to pay for drinks, snacks and goodies. These alternative ways range from social media activity to physical acts.

1. Social media interactions

In summer 2013, Pepsi encouraged its fans to trade in drinks for Facebook likes. Consumers were encouraged to enter using their smartphone to like the Pepsi Facebook page, choose the favorite drink and get a free Pepsi immediately. Those without phones could log into their Facebook account on a digital display to get their free sample of the soda.  In 2012, The Nokia Gift Machine installed in the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai was also giving freebies such as candies, Nokia devices, movie tickets and more for Foursquare check-ins and NFC interactions. Other examples also include the Camaro-matic Trending Machine that traded in special edition Chevrolet Camaro Hot Wheels tiny vehicles for geo-located tweets, and Twitter-activated BOS Ice Tea sample-sharing kiosks that dispensed cans of organic tea to consumers who sent a tweet to the machine while standing in front of it.

2. Power of mind, power of fans’ passion

It’s widely believed that taking a break and clearing your mind can relieve stress and help recharge, both mentally and physically. Building on this notion, in summer 2013, Amstel Bulgaria encouraged passers-by of legal drinking age to stop and stand idle for just three minutes. The brand rewarded the participants with a free beer for these 120 seconds of doing nothing. The Billboard music magazine recognized real music fans of all ages by giving away free copies of the issues, using a splendid mechanics. The vending machines of the publication encouraged passers-by to connect their iPhone to the kiosk—if the consumer had more than 20 tracks of the artist on the issue’s cover, he or she got a free copy of the magazine. The project started in Brazil earlier this year (view the realization of the project below).

3. Random physical acts

Coca-Cola is definitely a champion of trading in drinks for simple actions like huggingconnecting with people across continentssinging carolsdancing, etc. The latest installment in the series of projects with non-commercial vending machines is the “Roll Out Happiness” initiative—as part of this effort, Coca-Cola gave out free drinks to people who took off their shoes and enjoyed the brand’s pop-up garden. But other brands are also at sharing happiness through vending machines. As part of its “Dare to be tender” campaign, earlier this year Milka Argentina gave out free milk chocolate bars only to those who created real-life physical connections. The brand installed a kiosk and a Milka purple cow a few feet away, asking passers-by to take their hands to create a human chain as a “missing element” that connected the vending machine and the statue (watch a video below). Once the “circuit” was complete, the participants got their bar of chocolate. In 2012, the U.K. coffee company Kenco Millicano installed a vending machine in Soho Square that prompted passers-by to perform various acts such as singing, dancing, giving the kiosk a hug for a hot cup of coffee.

The future of vending machines: how to make smart kiosks more socially benefitting

While today’s vending kiosks already offer all kinds of services and products, for money and not, there are still features that are likely to be taken to the next level with technology. Here are some areas for improvement:

1. Consumer-oriented service. Kiosks should deliver goods that are tailored to the needs of the consumer. Facial recognition, deeper analysis of consumer cards and IDs, purchase history, etc. Each kiosk should be more like an expulsive vending machine for one person, while serving many at the same time.

2. Integration with social media. Brands might want to think how to leverage the power of not just Twitter and Facebook, but also of Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ and LinkedIn as well as other social media channels for their vending machines. Of course, user profile security comes on the top here.

3. Tapping into the shared economy trend. Consumers should perceive vending machines not only as kiosks for getting something, but also as spots to give or swap items or services. This also relates to the way we pay—a consumer may want to get a product for some alternative currency, some intellectual solutions, ideas, etc.