LAS VEGAS — The days of fumbling for enough change to buy that candy bar from the vending machine are over. Whip out your cell phone, call a number and charge the candy bar to your bill.
Vending machines are going high-tech. Customers can get weather and news updates while choosing a soda or use credit cards and cell phones to pay for a bag of trail mix.
“It’s getting people who don’t have the correct change,” Jason Allen, account director for Atlanta-based Marconi Online Systems, said Thursday during the Spring National Automatic Merchandising Association conference.
About 6,000 vending operators are attending the show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where 250 exhibitors displayed their latest food products, trends and technology.
Remember the frustration when a machine wouldn’t accept a dollar bill? What about being a nickel short to buy that soda? The agony!
This is the convention of solutions. Marconi Online created the cell phone purchase concept to end those pet peeves.
Customers approach a machine with their phone, dial an 800 number, enter the machine’s code and soon, the snack is delivered. The charge shows up on the customer’s cell bill.
The company predicts the new machines will be in operation in 12 to 18 months.
Machines also are being designed to accept credit or debit cards for a small fee. As you wait, check out the day’s news headlines or the weather report on a computer screen.
If it seems like an awful lot of time to be spending at a vending machine, the company isn’t worried. “It’s no more difficult than making a phone call,” Allen said.
Vending machines are a $36 billion a year business. Of course, soda remains the most popular item, but for snacks, Snickers candy bars win the contest, according to NAMA, the trade association for the vending industry.
“It’s really the unsung hero of feeding people,” said Dan Mathews, senior vice president and chief operating officer of NAMA.
Vending machines have come a long way since 1876, when NAMA says the first machine sold sticks of gum for 1 cent in the New York City subway system.
Now, it’s gourmet coffee, fresh french fries in 45 seconds, fresh popped popcorn, ice cream and frozen meals.
Insert money in an ice cream machine at the show and a robotic arm opens a freezer, selects an ice cream bar by sucking it up with a vacuum hose and delivers it to the buyer.
Another company wants to know what consumers think of buying frozen pizza from a vending machine. The only problem? It’s frozen and has to be cooked in an oven.
“Delicious,” said Gary Netolicky, sampling a cup of popcorn from a new machine. He was tasting products for his wife’s company, Video Vending, Inc. of Ames, Iowa.
Another company, Computer Associates of Islandia, N.Y., developed software that, through wireless technology, lets vending machine operators see what products need to be restocked without having to visit the machines.
But what about that annoying little problem you swear always happens to you? The money goes in, but the snack gets stuck and won’t come out.
There’s a solution – finally – to that, too. Crane National Vendors of Bridgeton, Mo., created “SureVend,” a machine with sensors that can tell if the product dropped or not. If it didn’t, a motor rotates until it does.
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