If you're strolling down Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills and suddenly get a hankering for a snack, you won't have to settle for a candy bar spit out by a regular old vending machine. Instead, snag a fresh cupcake from the Sprinkles Cupcake ATM. It's restocked all day and night for continuous cupcake delivery. Keep going down the street and eventually you'll end up at the Westfield Century City mall, where you can pick up an expensive snack from the caviar vending machine provided by Beverly Hills Caviar.
The Los Angeles area doesn't have a monopoly on unusual food vending machines. The traditional vending machine full of sodas, chips, or candy bars is starting to look downright old-fashioned next to a new wave of vending that embraces unconventional food products and advanced technology.
Roni Moore, vice president of marketing and communications for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, sees a wide-open field for innovative vending machines that meet new market demands. “The vending industry has always been and continues to be consumer-driven. This means that the savvy men and women in vending and refreshment services will provide consumers what they want, how they want it, when they want it," says Moore. "Today, in addition to traditional snacks and beverages, it’s cupcakes and caviar. Tomorrow, who knows?"
Riding at EatWave
EatWave Vending of San Diego believes it has tomorrow's vending machine already available. The EatWave, just launched in November, has a built-in microwave so it can serve both hot and cold foods. That means a customer could pick up a complete meal with a hamburger, a soda, and a hot vegetable dish on the side. "We're seeing a flatline and even a decline in the traditional vending market," says Mark Hoyt, vice president of marketing for EatWave. "We're hoping to revolutionize vending."
EatWave is positioning this new vending machine as a way for companies to expand their branding reach. Danny Parker, chief administrative officer of EatWave, sees an application for the machine as an extension for restaurants, whether quick service or independent. "It can provide an additional distribution channel. It can generate incremental revenue. It can expand their footprint to locations that might not make sense for a free-standing restaurant," says Parker.
Moore sees the rise of unusual food vending machines as a sign of the changing times. Youth, in particular, have raised the bar for what's expected with a tech device, whether it's a smartphone or a vending machine. “Gen-Y has grown up with technology that allows them to define their own experiences and is driving much of the innovation in vending,” says Moore. It's only natural for vending machines to start breaking out of their traditional molds.
When talking about Intel's involvement with intelligent vending machines, Intel's worldwide director of retail and digital signage Jose Avalos uses words like "memorable," "fun," and "productive." Intel provided the technology for a unique vending machine that dispenses Jell-O samples. The twist is that the Diji-Taste Kraft iSample machine uses optical sensors to only hand out samples to adults.
Intel is looking beyond vending at a means to just dispense food products. It has been busy adapting digital signage technologies to vending machines. Those features include remote management, interactive displays, and optical sensors that can gather age and sex data. "Now you can collect demographic information so brands can understand who's buying their product. That gives them a lot more business intelligence in terms of what kind of inventory they want to carry in the machines," says Avalos.
The future of vending
On the technology side, Avalos expects the future of vending machines across the board to involve remote management. "There are just so many benefits. You can track the health of the vending machine, you can run diagnostics, you can remotely turn the machine off for energy efficiency," he says. Machines with interactive screens will replace old-style machines—where the most exciting element is a rotating metal coil. "We're going to see richer experiences using gaming to deliver a brand experience and integrating social media," says Avalos.
Vending machines with unexpected products will continue to capture the public eye. For example, a Let's Pizza vending machine from Italy will soon be introduced to the U.S. market, with Atlanta the first stop. It even makes the pizza dough right in front of the customer.
EatWave and its hot product options fit right in with this trend. "This answers the issue of vending something new and something more profitable than the old snacks and sodas," says O'Neil Sawh, CTO of EatWave.
Ultimately, vending innovations are about engaging the customer in new ways, whether it's through interactive technology or offering unusual products like fresh cupcakes, hot pizza, or caviar. "Vending can be a destination that somebody is looking forward to at lunch and not a reluctant last resort," says Parker.