Vending machines expand product offerings, from diapers to charitable contributions

Kyodo

Vending machine operators have recently been seeking new ways to expand their sales as they face competition from convenience stores that offer an increasing variety of products.

Japan has a staggeringly high density of vending machines — about 4.9 million units nationwide. About half of these units sell beverages, with annual sales standing at nearly ¥5 trillion at the end of 2016, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association.

But the spread of convenience stores throughout the country is posing a threat, prompting vending machine operators to find unique or unconventional ways to expand their functions.

One example is a vending machine installed in a baby changing room at a shopping mall in Yokohama that sells drinks and diapers. Beverage producer Kirin Holdings Co. and household product maker Kao Corp. developed the machine in a tie-up with a nonprofit organization supporting child rearing.

They put the idea into practice after fathers who are actively involved in raising their children told Comachiplus, a Yokohama-based NPO, that it would be convenient to be able to buy diapers from a vending machine if they forget to bring some along when going out with their babies.

According to the mall, which is run by Aeon Retail Co., the vending machine has sold about 30 diapers a month since being installed in March.

The Kirin group has already deployed vending machines that offer opportunities for users to make contributions to charities by buying the items they contain.

The group, which has long supported activities advocating early detection and treatment of breast cancer, has installed “pink-ribbon” vending machines. Part of the sales proceeds is donated to a fund promoting pink ribbon movements aimed at raising awareness of breast cancer.

The beverage maker has also set up vending machines linked with support for the development of soccer in Japan, as well as others for local Japanese businesses.

Another beverage maker, Asahi Soft Drinks Co., has launched vending machines that offer “ice-cold” drinks, whose temperatures are kept at around 1 degree compared with around 5 degrees for conventional machines.

“As we are expecting a scorching summer this year, I hope more people will buy (from our machines),” said a company official.

JR East Water Business Co. has installed what it calls an “innovation vending machine.” It is coupled with a smartphone application that allows buyers to pay for items beforehand and even gives a discount. Customers can get the products by holding their smartphones over the machine.

The machine is also compatible with other electronic payment systems for transportation. An official in charge of the business said the railway company plans to install more such units in its business areas.