Stale potato chips and week-old candy bars.
If you'd have asked me just last year what I would be buying from a vending machine, that's what I would have said.
But not any more. The vending machine is back. With a vengeance. It's completely re-inventing itself into a trendy retail experience, building in all sorts of cool tech and even becoming social media savvy. Here's what you can buy from one:
- Marijuana - Couldn't resist starting with this one. A marijuana dispensing machine just opened up in my hometown, Vancouver, BC., (there are machines in Seattle and Los Angeles too).
Yup, medical cannabis right out of a vending machine. Times are changing, and retail is changing along with it.
- Bicycle Parts - Biking around town and need to patch a tire? Bike store closed? No problem. Just use a Bikestock vending machine. To add to its trendy, urban vibe, the machines are "curated by cyclists for cyclists."
Almost makes you want to bike around NYC in the snow.
- Snapchat Spectacles - Not only can you buy Snapchat's newly released sunglasses/video camera "Spectacles" from a vending machine, you actually have to.
Yes, they are only available through their hyper trendy "Snapbot" vending machines that seem to appear and disappear on a regular basis. (Like this one opening for the holiday season in New York City, right across the street from the Apple store).
New retail trend - the sale of products as a global treasure hunt.
- Old & Unusual Books - Are you an antique book collector? A bibliophile on the hunt? Yes, you can now find old and unusual books in the Biblio-mat vending machine. I am literally giddy at this idea:
What's fun about this vending machine is that, like the Snapbot's appearing and disappearing act, it's also "gamifying" the experience by making it a mystery what book you are actually buying.
Not only fun for book-nerds like me, but a great way for a bookstore to clear out stock that's been sitting on the shelf too long.
- Lego - Ever been stuck trying to find a last minute gift for a kid's birthday party? No problem. Just go to the Lego vending machine. At this point, the only one I can find is in Germany. (Let's make this a global thing, ok?)
The trend? Overworked parents wanting simple, fast convenient shopping.
- Miniature Zombie Marshmallows - Rotofugi, a toy store in Chicago, operates a vending machine that allows customers to create custom, plastic art figures.
The humorously named "Roto-matic" machine combines a bunch of retail trends - a "retro" feel, "do it yourself," customization, and gamification.
The future of retail is creative, and so are these guys.
- Beer - Molson's Canadian brewery, a major player in the Canadian beer industry, installed a bunch of beer vending machines in cities across Europe. The catch? They could only be opened by a Canadian passport:
The trend? Vending Machines as a brand-building, marketing play - installation based public entertainment.
Not sure they sold a lot of beer, but the YouTube video's been watched almost 3 million times.
Hot Wheels - Yup, more toys. At the Canadian International Auto show in 2013, Mattel unveiled its "Camaro-Matic" vending machine, dispensing, you guessed it, Hot Wheel toys.
The cool factor? You didn't need to pay, you just needed to tweet and follow. And, guess what? Mattel tripled its Twitter followers during the time the machine was operating.
Two trends here - brand building/entertainment and social media integration. Brilliant.
Fresh Salads & Fruit - In the ultimate move away from potato chips and candy bars, vending machines all over the world now offer fresh salads, fresh fruits, and healthier eating options for students and on-the-go professionals.
Quinoa salad and kale chips anyone?
Prescription Drugs - Run out of your prescription? Don't want to wait for the pharmacy to open? If you're a student at Arizona State University, you may be able to get your medication from a vending machine.
The trend? The pharmaceutical industry is looking for ways to provide fast and easy access to their products. Is a vending machine going to replace a visit to your local pharmacist?
Drive-through pharmacies are pretty common now, so this may well be the future for medication delivery.
Gold Bars - In perhaps the biggest leap from its reputation as hawker of cheap snacks, the vending machine has matured into a global gold exchange.
Yes, I'm happy to report that if you are out on the town and have an urgent need to buy gold, you can now purchase gold bars via a vending machine.
Umbrellas - Put this one in the "convenience" category. Out on a rainy day and forgot your umbrella? Just drop some coin into the "VendaBrolly" umbrella vending machines gaining popularity in the UK, or this one in the Vancouver Airport.
Sensible Shoes - Not only can you get gold bars when you are out on the town, you can also slip out of those uncomfortable high heels and into some sensible flat shoes via these vending machines targeted to "stiletto sore party girls."
Organic Raw Milk - Fed up with low prices from processors, dairy farmers in the UK are now selling direct to consumers through raw milk vending machines.
As vending machines become more sophisticated, more and more products are able to be sold this way. If you want to get rid of the middle man, think of vending your product.
Sports Jerseys - You're heading to "the big game," but don't have a team jersey. No problem, just hit up the jersey vending machine. During the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014, Brazil Metro installed vending machines for fans wanting to buy their home team's iconic yellow jersey.
The trend here is about seizing opportunities and linking purchasing behavior to events. A vending machine is not like a retail store or even a staffed kiosk. You can install it when the opportunity arises (like a big event coming to town).
The buzz word? Contextual Commerce - selling (and shopping) outside the merchant's regular storefront.
Electronics- Purchasing electronics via vending machines has been around for awhile now. Both Apple and Best Buy operate vending machines selling headsets, chargers, mobile phones, and even tablets. You typically see them in airports, outside electronics stores, or in shopping malls.
What I find interesting is the trend to put these high tech vending machines inside stores that are selling unrelated items, like clothing stores or department stores.
Here's the iPad machine inside a Macy's department store:
Vending machine operators are getting creative, not only what they are selling, but where they are locating their machines.
If you are a retailer looking to diversify or try new stock, why not set up a fun vending machine stocked with a unique "outside the box" product inside your store and see what happens?
Bread - Do you like a freshly baked French baguette? (and who doesn't, really?). Well, you can get one at a vending machine in Paris (and now, in San Francisco too).
Or, for a different approach to bread, you can get canned bread from vending machines in Japan.
In fact, you can get a lot of very bizarre items from Japanese vending machines (fishing bait, flowers, sake, religious amulets, bras, rice, eggs). They seem to be the world leader in the "who knew you could buy that from a vending machine?" category.
The lesson here is simple. If you're thinking "well, my products could never be sold in a vending machine," think again.
They probably can.