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The future of vending

Vending machines are becoming more and more common in every environment. In this article FMJ talks to industry experts and looks at the rest of the media to find out where this technology might be going in the future

Once upon a time, buying coffee from a vending machine meant enduring a tepid cup of sour tasting brown water, often with undissolved bits of coffee and creamer floating on the surface. Most vending machines were for caffeine emergencies only, with customers likely to head out for a brew in a local café whenever time allowed.” This at least is the view of FreshGround, a family owned coffee machines and water solutions business.

“Luckily for employees, hospital visitors and students everywhere, times are changing. Today, thanks to companies like FreshGround, the old-style coffee vending machine is almost a thing of the past, replaced with shiny new models that actually offer real coffee, real taste and a truly enjoyable brew.

“When coffee vending machines first appeared in our hallways and lobbies, we were all so impressed we could get hot drinks on demand, we didn’t realise just how bad some of the coffee was. What’s more, before the advent of the high street coffee shop, few drinkers had ever had anything other than a standard filtered brew.

“Over the last few years, the quality and variety of the coffee available in high street cafes has sky rocketed. Consumers have become used to a tastier, less bitter brew and are no longer happy to put up with substandard hot drinks, even if they do come from a vending machine.

“These chains are now extending their offering to vending machines, the likes of which are spreading across the country’s petrol stations at a great speed. While still technically ‘vending’, they are of a higher quality than years gone by due to their use of whole beans and fresh milk, much like the bean to cup machines available from FreshGround.

“Another factor having a big impact on the future of vending machines is employee appreciation. In order to make workers feel valued and to create a productive and cohesive work environment, bosses are turning their backs on cheap, old-fashioned vending machines and opting to give their employees a more enjoyable coffee experience instead.

“By providing workers with high quality coffee from sustainable sources, employers can show that they value and respect their employees, something that can go a long way to boosting morale and productivity in the workplace.

“Contactless payments are becoming more and more common in everyday life. That’s why we’re developing a contactless payment system for our coffee machines, helping vending move into the 21st century as we go.

“While FreshGround aren’t a vending company, we are being asked to supply high specification machines that can do the kinds of volumes required for highly populated spaces, and we’re rising to the challenge in a different way. Serviced office companies we work with are looking to offer excellent quality drinks to their clients, but without incurring a cost themselves. Employees simply top up their card with credits at reception, and tap on the contactless reader, selecting their freshly made drink of choice.

iStock_000046345602_Full“Not only will this make it quicker and easier for coffee drinkers to purchase a brew, it can also make managing the income of the vending machine simpler and more straight forward.

“Convenient and affordable, vending machines are a staple of offices, universities and hospitals across the country. By continuing to innovate and push the boundaries, FreshGround can offer the same levels of convenience but with a much higher quality of product.”

All interesting stuff, but more investigation reveals that there are some advances coming up that might have been lifted right out of a science fiction novel. The Telegraph reported in late 2014 that the world’s first vending machine capable of recognising faces had been developed.

The article claimed: “The vending machine of the future is here, and it knows who you are. The Luce X2 Touch TV vending machine, which was debuted to industry professionals in Hertfordshire in October, is claimed to be the first in the world to use facial recognition technology.

The machines are able to identify and greet a user, remember a person’s preferences and even refuse to vend a certain product based on a shopper’s age, medical record, dietary requirements or purchase history.

“For example, a school can link the Luce X2 with its database and tell the machine to refuse to sell certain products, such as cigarettes, to underage students. The system could also be connected to a retailer’s loyalty points system or linked to the room numbers in a hotel, for example.”

Only in April Forbes penned a piece suggesting that the future of the vending industry was predicated on tackling the obesity epidemic, especially in children. It highlighted how many states and municipalities were legislating what foods could or could not be sold from vending machines or, in the article’s words “automatic retailers.”

It also looked at the increasing preference, especially among millennials, for online ordering, suggesting that ordering food over the internet could pose a massive challenge to the vending industry.

But themes like healthy eating might be tackled by schemes like that run in Dundee where the nearby Grewar Farm has been selling its meat and vegetable products at Overgate Shopping Centre for over a year. Depending on what’s in season, it sells potatoes, onions, carrots, cauliflower, strawberries, broccoli, and eggs from Grewar. The machines also dispense vegetable boxes, which include a variety of produce.

There was also a vending machine trade show in Chicago where people saw a machine able to dispense cooked pizzas in three minutes with a choice of toppings available on a touch screen.

But who really knows where the development of the vending machine might lead us?

After all when the Greek mathematician Hero kicked things off in 215BC (he invented a machine to vend holy water in Egyptian temples) who would have imagined a machine that would dispense chocolate bars and crisps.

Ditto when the the first commercial coin-operated vending machines were introduced in London in the 1880 they dispensed not food but post cards. Soon after publisher and bookshop owner, Richard Carlisle invented a vending machine for selling books.

Even gum dispensers and gumball machines were invented before the snack producing technology we all recognise today. Thomas Adams Gum Company introduced Tutti-Fruiti gum machines on the New York Subway in 1888 and the Gumball machine followed in 1907.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. From the 1950s well in the 1970s life insurance policies were often dispensed from machines in the States. But bizarre offerings are making a come back with “automated retail kiosks” selling artwork, short stories and electronic appliances. This is most apparent in the Far East. In Japan there is an average of one vending machines for every 23 people and you can buy anything from toilet paper to ready meals.

In 2011, Intel produced a report stating that by 2016, shipments of a new wave of vending machines incorporating the latest technology and dubbed ‘Intelligent Vending Machines’, would grow by 49 per cent. Some of the features these intelligent machines were expected to offer included cashless payment systems and voice recognition. These innovations might not have become ubiquitous yet but the first steps have surely been taken.

For any facilities manager, having an understanding of what return to expect on their investment is an important part of the decision to upgrade their machine and offer a cashless payment option. For example offering cashless payment means that average takings on a vending machine rise from £325 to over £500 per week on average. Surely that is worth paying attention too.

About Sarah OBeirne

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