Vending machines turn new tricks to make a buck

Japan is a vending machine paradise. They’re ubiquitous — on streets, train platforms, even at the top of Mount Fuji — and sell about everything.

Vending machines have become a daily necessity for busy people on the go, like Nobukazu Serikawa, a 35-year-old company employee who buys drinks out of machines three or four times a day.

“When I go to the office every morning, I buy a drink from the machine downstairs,” Serikawa said, buying a can of hot coffee near JR Yurakucho Station in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. “I don’t want to waste time going to a convenience store, so I can’t do without them.”

There were some 2.61 million vending machines just selling beverages as of the end of December 2003, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association.

But the market has remained virtually flat for the past decade, according to the association, so beverage and vending machine manufacturers are trying to add new services to draw in customers.

A cell phone-operated purchasing system is one such attempt by Coca-Cola Japan Co., the nation’s largest operator of drink machines, with 980,000 units.

Launched in April 2002, the system enables registered users to charge purchases from 2,100 vending machines by scanning a cell phone.

Every time users charge a purchase with a phone, they accumulate points that can be used to buy drinks.

The role of vending machines remained almost unchanged for decades, said Masahiko Suzuki, manager of the firm’s machine marketing section.

“We have to offer various services, or we won’t be able to” keep attracting consumers, Suzuki said, adding that vending machines sales involve higher margins than through retailers like supermarkets.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., the nation’s second-largest drink machine maker, recently developed a new model that consumes 35 percent less electricity.

“By adding such environmental value, we hope to boost vending machine sales,” said Yasutomo Onishi, manager at the company’s refrigeration research laboratory.

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