Options abound in new vending machines [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]By Deborah M. Todd, Pittsburgh Post-GazetteMcClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 08--Those boxes of metal and plastic that until recently provided only a cold sandwich and a soda -- on a good day -- have evolved to the point they can offer the best suggestions for a gluten-free snack and break a $20 bill in the process.
No longer solely the realm of cheese snacks and 20-ounce bottles of sugar, today's vending machines operate more like supercenters than corner stores. Machines equipped for payments beyond cash, bill-recycling machines that can break a $20 and machines with smart touch-screen interfaces are becoming increasingly popular in the country's break rooms.
And that's only what's new in payment options.
"If it fits in a vending machine, for the most part, someone with a vending machine will sell it," said Lee Ivory, vending sales manager of Sheraden-based Beston Pittsburgh Distributing, which sells vending machines to operators.
Chicago-based Canteen Vending Services' 2bU Machine -- which provides nutritional information and offers suggestions for all of its locally grown, organic, vegan, kosher and gluten-free products on an LCD menu screen -- is available in more than 300 locations across the country, including three in Lehigh Valley Health Network hospitals in Eastern Pennsylvania.
But that's not all. Best Buy has been capitalizing on airline passenger boredom since 2009 by selling iPods and other electronics in Best Buy Express vending machines at airports nationwide. Starting this year, Americans will even be able to order push-button pizzas from machines thanks to the efforts of the Italy-based Wonder Pizza vending company.
After suffering massive losses during the height of the recession, the vending industry has seen slower declines in business in recent years, with aggregate vending sales reaching $18.96 billion in 2011.
Although most of Pittsburgh's airports and snack centers haven't yet made the new technologies a staple, some examples of the latest in vending machine technology have been in place for years in various forms on the city's college campuses.
Duquesne University uses cashless machines that allow students to pay for snacks with credit cards or to use student ID cards to pay with what the university dubs "DU Dollars." The DU Dollar interface on cards also allows students to make copies and use vending machines in libraries with a swipe of a card.
Cashless machines at Carnegie Mellon University allow students to pay with cash or credit linked to student IDs, but also allow for payments at laundromats and in other locations throughout campus.
In what's become one of the most popular high-tech features of residential life beyond vending, washing machines are connected to the Internet to allow students to check their availability before hauling a load to the laundry room.
No wait and no loose change equals no worries for students with concerns far more pressing than laundry, said Kim Abel, CMU director of housing and dining services.
"The days of carrying around quarters has passed," she said. "Providing this flexibility on campus responds to the ever-changing expectations of residential students on campus."
One issue keeping newer vending machines from achieving the ubiquity of traditional ones is the hurdle that comes with training and a lack of initial payoff, according to VendingMarketWatch.com's 2012 State of the Vending Industry Report.
That, plus some operators are turned off by the idea of customers giving a frustrated punch to a brand new machine that fails to give up the goods.
"People do treat vending machines a little rough," Mr. Ivory said. "A lot of operators don't want to put all of that money into something that people can give a quick kick or an elbow."
Still, operators invested in upgrades in record numbers last year, according to the vending industry report.
"This demonstrates both an evolving understanding of the need to adopt new technology and of the commitment that a cadre of technology providers have made to the industry," it reads.
With one provision of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act set to change nutritional reporting standards for machines, the nation should expect to see new machines on a regular basis in the next few years, said Maggie Palmer, spokesperson for Portland, Ore.-based vending technology company VendScreen.
The company's hand held-device, which is the size of a smartphone, can be installed in existing machines to allow users to read nutritional information, access promotions and advertisements and make cashless payments from a number of sources, including online accounts such as Google Wallet.
The Android-based device connects to the Internet and also allows operators to analyze sales data and create dynamic route scheduling that gives machines running low on product top priority for a restock. The technology is scheduled to hit machines throughout the country, including several in Pittsburgh, later this year.
"Over the next five years, we're going to see more and more vending machines with screens because operators need to comply with the new law," said VendScreen CEO Paresh Patel.
Even if they weren't forced to obey the law, vending operators will ultimately obey their customers' demands if they begin requesting high-tech machines, Mr. Ivory said.
"When the customers say they're ready for it, operators will have it," he said.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.
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